The Tale of Two Tunnels

Worlds apart, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) and a major California newspaper, spent last Sunday polishing headline stories on proposals to move water from north to south.

In California these stories typically pre-sage the next battle in the on-going Water Wars.  The United Kingdom may not be far behind.  Much of south and eastern England is in an official drought.  The BBC story, tied to this week’s Drought Summit, led with London Mayor Boris Johnson professing, “The rain it raineth on the just and the unjust, says the Bible, but frankly it raineth a lot more in Scotland and Wales than it doth in England.”

The California story leads with “Audacious Delta tunnel plan weighed” and goes on to explain a proposal for what may be the largest water tunnel ever contemplated in North America.  The tunnel would flow deep under the California Delta on a 37-mile path to the California Aqueduct.

In England, according to the BBC, “Piping water from wet north to dry south has seemed like a good idea to a long line of people, most significantly the Water Resources Board, the government agency that used to look after what was then regarded as a national resource.”  In 1973, the Board proposed just such a project. A year later, it was disbanded and replaced by regional agencies designed to manage water locally.  The separation was further accelerated by privatization in the 1980s.  This set-up has created a situation in England where, according to John Rodda, former director of hydrology and water resources with the World Meteorological Organization and now a UK-based consultant, “there is no attempt to consider the national resources in a holistic way.” He explains this is because there is no national plan.

Just ‘No’

Even so, the British proposal recycles regardless of forces against it. In 2006 the British Environment Agency issued a report titled, “”Do we need large-scale water transfers for south-east England?” and the conclusions were simple – No.

The report acknowledged it could be done, but estimated cost at between five and eight times more than developing extra infrastructure and instituting water conservation measures in the southeast.

Maybe Yes

In California, official reports lean the opposite direction.  The Bay Delta Conservation Plan, scheduled for release in just weeks, will outline the proposed approach, including the tunnel, for moving water to the south. An existing system conveys water there now but most view the current approach as unsustainable.   A collection of opponents suggest the ambitious engineering solution is not the best approach and recommend measures involving water conservation and infrastructure improvements in Southern California.

The massive proposals come with big price tags and questions of who will pay them.  Although the United Kingdom and the State of California ranked 8th and 9th respectively as the world’s largest economies, cash for government projects is hardly plentiful.

Add that to the fact the very people actually know where their water comes from.  In fact, recent public opinion research found the majority of Californians have never heard of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, the location of the proposed tunnel and the core of California’s water delivery system.  The findings were worse in Southern California, the primary water recipient.  A stunning 86 percent of Southern Californians did not know about the Delta.

The situation will only get worse.  Climate change, aging infrastructure, and a fragile ecosystem continue to wreck havoc with water supplies.    It is just a matter of time before something gives. The question is, will something be done before disaster strikes?

Meanwhile, you may want to ask yourself these questions: Do you know where your water comes from?  Have you complained about your water bill?  What happens if water is no longer available to the economic engine of your State or Nation?

In the coming decade, water management will be a topic no public administrator or policy maker can ignore.


One thought on “The Tale of Two Tunnels

  1. The water problem, not only in Britain, or California will forge the future of
    civilization throughout the world. With less than 2% of the world’s water being drinkable, serious droughts and outdated delivery systems will eventually fail. My question would be desalination of our mighty oceans, and
    delivery systems based on 21st century technology. What will humankind do when that 2% runs dry?


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