Govenor Jerry Brown’s controversial Delta Tunnels plan that conservationsists fear will affect an already struggling Chinook salmon run was scaled down today.
Update: California Department of Water Resources says no so fast.
DWR Director Karla Nemeth: "The press is incorrect that we have decided on one tunnel… We continue to believe the full project as defined is the correct and necessary path for California, but implementing in stages would be prudent and fiscally responsible." #cawater
The troubled Delta tunnels project was officially downsized Wednesday, as Gov. Jerry Brown’s administration announced it would attempt to build a single tunnel in its effort to re-engineer California’s elaborate water-delivery system.
Critics of the project, including Delta landowners and many environmental groups, say even one tunnel would damage the Delta’s fragile eco-system. They have vowed to continue fighting WaterFix in court and in regulatory proceedings. They also argue that the necessary environmental analyses must be completely redone, a process that could add a year or more to a project that already been in the planning stages for a decade.
“We still have all the same issues,” said Russell van Loben Sels, a prominent Delta farmer and tunnels critic. “It creates a whole host of problems for the Delta.”
The announcement acknowledges what had become obvious in recent months: Brown’s administration has been unable to raise the nearly $17 billion necessary to build two tunnels beneath the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. An unofficial count by The Sacramento Bee shows that the south-of-Delta water districts have pledged about $6.5 billion toward the project, and many of those commitments are tentative. Since October the Brown administration has openly floated the idea of scaling back the project, or building just one tunnel as a first phase.
The tunnels are designed to fix a problem that has festered for decades. Water pumping by the State Water Project and the federal Central Valley Project has irrigated the southern half of the state but caused considerable harm to the Delta’s eco-system. Several fish species, notably the smelt and Chinook salmon, face possible extinction.
By law, pumping often has to be curtailed or halted altogether to protect the fish, which means water destined for the pumps flows out to sea instead. This requirement has reduced water deliveries to the millions of acres of irrigated farmland that depend on the Delta, as well as the 19 million residential customers of Metropolitan, the largest water agency in the system.
In a prepared statement this afternoon, Restore the Delta accused the state of trying to “jam through a permit for one project, while working secretly with water exporters to create another.”
“Impacted parties have the right to measure the impacts of a single 6,000 cfs tunnel on fisheries, water quality for environmental justice communities, and the public interests,” said Executive Director Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla. “We remain convinced that a fifth reiteration of the project will not save (it) from failure and will ultimately deal a devastating blow to the health of the ailing San Francisco Bay-Delta estuary.”
Nemeth said it’s the department’s opinion that no new impacts will occur under the 6,000 cfs single-tunnel alternative that haven’t already been identified under the old plan. Her department intends to continue seeking its permit from the water board under the parameters of the old proposal, while separately preparing an additional environmental document to demonstrate the effects of the single tunnel.
Additionally, water districts that voted to support the plan last fall will need to vote again on the phased approach.
The state is not ruling out the possibility that federal water contractors, mostly San Joaquin Valley farmers, who have so far declined to pay their share, will change their minds.
Here’s the California Department of Water Resources statement:
Today, the Department of Water Resources (DWR) sent a memo to the local public water agencies participating in the development and construction of California WaterFix and issued the following statement from DWR Director Karla Nemeth. “WaterFix is a long-overdue infrastructure upgrade that will maintain a reliable water supply for 25 million Californians while also protecting the Delta ecosystem. With the current stated support of the participating public water agencies, the state is proposing to pursue WaterFix as planned, but also explore an option to implement construction in stages. This prudent approach aligns the urgent statewide need for action with the project’s current support. We are eager to move forward with WaterFix to protect the Delta and water supplies.”