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Tunnel Visions

Proposition 1 and Jerry Brown's pipe dreams for the Delta

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Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla, executive director of the organization Restore the Delta, scoffed at a declaration made by Gov. Jerry Brown in the days after the South Napa Earthquake. He told KGO radio that the 6.0 quake was nothing compared to what scientists say is in store for Californians. He said global warming and the threat of the Big One should motivate wary citizens to support his twin Delta Tunnels, part of Brown's ambitious, $25 billion Bay Delta Conservation Plan.

"That's a continuation of the Brown propaganda machine for the Delta Tunnels," Barrigan-Parrilla says with a sharp, short laugh.

Whoa, governor. State legislators have already said no to the plan, at least for now, stripping it out of a historic $7.5 billion water bond headed for the ballot in November as Proposition 1.

In the grips of the drought, Sacramento lawmakers came to an almost unanimous agreement on the wisdom of the water bond. Along the way to passage in the Legislature, the Water Quality, Supply and Infrastructure Improvement Act of 2014 went from "tunnel-neutral" to tunnel-wary in the final language signed by Gov. Brown.

That's not stopping Brown from chasing his Delta twin-pipe dream, as he pursues a legacy project comprising two 40-foot-wide, 30-mile-long tunnels built under the Sacramento River-San Joaquin Delta that would ferry water to parched Big Ag valleys and water districts to the south.

Brown's post-temblor comment had a whiff of the "shock doctrine" to it—a term coined by writer and activist Naomi Klein that refers to the use of a natural or man-made disaster to promote "disaster capitalism," projects otherwise unpopular with the public; e.g., the invasion of Iraq or the destruction of the public school system in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.

The governor has been pitching the tunnels at public events and in speeches throughout the year, says chief spokesman Evan Westrup.

"The governor has been sounding this same alarm for the better part of two years, from the news conference where he announced his [tunnel] proposal in 2012 to a radio interview less than a month before the Napa earthquake," says Westrup via email. "This is hardly a new warning, but in light of recent events, it seems a few more Californians are listening."

If they are, it's too late for any legislative motion on the tunnel front this year.

Indeed, voters' wariness over the tunnels translated into a legislative fatwa on the subject in the final bond language that emerged in legislative negotiations. Voters will decide its fate in November when they vote on Proposition 1, but they won't be voting on the tunnels or other parts of the Delta-conservation plan.

All of that was scrubbed by July, when the Legislature passed a $7.5 billion bond with overwhelming support—and no money for the tunnels.

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The road to Proposition 1 started in 2009, with a proposed $11 billion bond that stalled over high pork content after passing the Assembly. Some of the pork was tunnel funds that proved difficult to remove. When lawmakers took up the bond again this year, they still had to grapple with Brown's tunnel scrapple.

State Assemblyman Marc Levine, D-San Rafael, says that an earlier version of the renegotiated and putatively pork-free bond this year still had some "wiggle room" to spend money on tunnel-related activities. He recalls that environmentalists told him they would be "OK if the bond was tunnel-neutral, because there's a lot of good stuff in there."

Tunnel neutral, says Levine, "wasn't good enough for me."

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