SACRAMENTO -- Against the backdrop of vociferous opposition from environmentalists and Northern California Democrats, Gov. Jerry Brown on Wednesday embarked on what promises to be a wild ride through the white rapids of water politics.

Brown unveiled plans to build a $14 billion pair of tunnels -- to be willingly paid for by farmers and other water users -- to move water more easily from the north to the south.

The governor and U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar ballyhooed the proposal at a Sacramento news conference and were immediately blasted by environmentalists and a bevy of Northern California lawmakers at a Capitol rally.

The governor's entry into controversial water politics comes only weeks after he pushed through an expensive and increasingly unpopular plan to begin construction of a high-speed rail project. By pursuing these massive infrastructure projects, the governor could be putting at risk his fall tax initiative, which would boost taxes on the wealthy and hikes the sales tax by a quarter cent, the projects' critics say.

Brown said he can't worry about the next election -- or every criticism -- every time he wants to do something big.

"Analysis paralysis is not why I came back 30 years later to handle some of the same issues," said Brown, 74. "At this stage, as I see many of my friends dying -- I went to the funeral of my best friend a couple of weeks ago -- I want to get (expletive) done."


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Added the governor: "There's a lot of fearful men walking around that would recommend we climb in a hole and wait 'til it all blows over. Well, it's not going to blow over. Problems are going to increase, whether it's climate change, inequality, or political dysfunctionality. It's all there."

The proposal also calls for restoring the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, a vast network of marshes and sloughs that has seen ecological decline as the state's farms and cities have increasingly tapped it for trillions of gallons of water each year. Protecting the estuary from earthquakes and faster snow melts, while firming up aging and decrepit levees, are all key goals.

Money from a bond proposal that was moved this month to the 2014 ballot would likely be tapped to pay for conservation provisions of the plan. Voters could be asked to approve as much as $9 billion to cover the cost of habitat restoration and operation of the tunnels.

But opponents said the governor's proposal threatens the delta's health, which could result in possible great harm to fish and wildlife and vowed to fight it.

"Northern California is at risk with this facility. Have no doubt about that," said U.S. Rep. John Garamendi, D-Fairfield. "To the secretary and the governor: You've launched your war; we'll fight the battle."

This is about the U.S. government, the state of California and agricultural interests "once again making a water grab from Northern California water," Garamendi said.

Brown and Salazar insisted they will rely on research to determine environmental impacts. The proposal, which should be ready for public comment by the fall, will address concerns of both environmentalists and water users, Salazar said.

The pumps now reversing the flow of the delta to provide water to farmers in the Central Valley are effectively killing 95 percent of some species because the fish are unable to cross the delta.

"That has to be fixed," Salazar said. "We'll negate the killing effect of the large pumps, which is a big win for those who care about fisheries, who care about conservation and environmental issues of the state."

And the new plan would provide certainty for water users, he said.

"We'll never be able to negate uncertainty -- you can't control the weather, but we can create a system that provides a lot more certainty, given the ecological conditions we face,'' he said. "Everybody knows this system we have here is broken."

The project, already being called "the peripheral tunnel," is similar to a plan that voters rejected in 1982. That measure would have authorized building a giant "peripheral canal" over roughly the same area. It sparked a bitter campaign that pitted Northern California voters against Southern California voters.

Legislators who represent the delta area said the plan failed to address the goal of reducing demands on the delta through water recycling and other conservation programs.

"We're being asked to take a lot on faith," said Sen. Mark DeSaulnier, D-Concord. "We're being asked to believe that in the future the amount of water diverted from the delta will be based on science, when science has been persistently ignored up to this point. We're being asked to believe that fish will miraculously need less water to survive in the future. That's a lot to ask. Too much."

Contra Costa County, whose leaders have been fending off a peripheral canal for more than three decades, reacted swiftly and negatively to the joint federal-state announcement.

"We need science before size," said Contra Costa County Supervisor Mary Nejedly Piepho, who also sits on the Delta Protection Commission. "Science should drive the capacity of any project, not the other way around. It is completely unacceptable."

Staff writers Lisa Vorderbrueggen and Paul Rogers contributed to this report. Contact Steven Harmon at 916-441-2101. Follow him at Twitter.com/ssharmon. Read the Political Blotter at IBAbuzz.com/politics.

The 'PERIPHERAL TUNNELS'
  • Under the plan, two huge, side-by-side underground tunnels, each 33 feet in diameter, would carry fresh water 37 miles from the state's largest river, the Sacramento, under the delta to giant federal and state pumps at Tracy.
  • It would then flow into canals run by the State Water Project and the Central Valley Project, which deliver Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta water to 25 million Californians, from the Bay Area to San Diego, and to irrigate 3 million acres of farmland.
  • An environmental impact report on the proposal would begin in the fall. Scientific studies will accompany construction over the next 10-15 years.
  • Money from a bond proposal that was moved this month to the 2014 ballot would likely be tapped to pay for conservation provisions of the plan. Voters could be asked to approve as much as $9 billion to cover the cost of habitat restoration and operation of the tunnels.
  • Officials said they will consider different alternatives and project sizes. Permits could be issued next year, and construction could start in two to three years, with the project to be completed by 2026.