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Tribune News Service
Tribune News Service
Dale Kasler and Ryan Sabalow

After decades of failure, California dusts off controversial Delta tunnel water project

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Here we go again.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s administration revived the Delta tunnel project Wednesday, unveiling a downsized version of the controversial, multibillion-dollar plan to re-engineer the fragile estuary on Sacramento’s doorstep that serves as the hub of the state's overstressed water-delivery network.

After three years with little to no public activity, the state released an environmental blueprint for what’s now called the Delta Conveyance — a 45-mile tunnel that would divert water from the Sacramento River and route it under the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta so that it can be shipped to farms and cities hundreds of miles away. The blueprint, a 3,000-page draft version of an environmental impact report, is a necessary initial step in securing approvals for the project.

Officials said the single-tunnel proposal, running roughly parallel to Interstate 5, is simpler and creates fewer disruptions than the twin-tunnel plan championed by former Gov. Jerry Brown. Newsom scrapped that plan within weeks of taking office in early 2019 and directed his administration to begin developing a Delta project with a smaller footprint.

But the pitch Newsom’s team is making is much the same as the one Brown made: The project is needed to make the San Francisco Bay Area and Southern California’s water supply more reliable while reducing the harm the current system inflicts on the estuary’s troubled ecosystem. The tunnel, proponents say, would ease the stress on endangered fish species that ply the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers.

Wade Crowfoot, secretary of the Natural Resources Agency, called the project “essential to California’s water future.”

Environmental concerns with the Delta tunnel

The plan arrives with the state in the throes of one of the worst droughts ever recorded.

But a proposal to replumb the Delta, in one form or another, has been under consideration since Gov. Pat Brown, elected in 1959, began building the pumping stations, dams and canals that make up the State Water Project.

The movement gained new momentum under his son’s two stints as governor. A Delta water-delivery project — one tunnel or two — has been touted by Jerry Brown and Newsom’s teams as a way of correcting a fundamental problem with California’s delivery system that supplies water to millions of acres of San Joaquin Valley farmland and 25 million people in Southern California and Silicon Valley.

Two massive, arena-sized pumping stations built in the south Delta near Tracy decades ago are so powerful they alter the currents inside the estuary and cause problems for migrating fish. As fish numbers have dipped closer and closer to extinction over the years, regulators have forced the pumping stations to ratchet back the amount of Delta water that gets pumped into state and federal canals.

To address the growing Delta water-delivery bottleneck, both Newsom’s and Brown’s plans would build intakes a few miles south of Sacramento that would siphon off a portion of the Sacramento River’s flows during heavy storms and route it under the Delta so that fresh, clean water could head to the south state without as many environmental harms.

But the plan has come to embody everything that’s tedious and slow about modernizing California’s outdated water infrastructure. Water projects can take decades to plan, finance and build, if they get done at all.

California’s influential army of well-funded environmentalists oppose almost any new large-scale water infrastructure project, and the tunnels are no exception.

At the same time, Delta farmers and community leaders fear any tunneling project would degrade their estuary even more.

The state “needs to speak frankly about the sacrifices expected of the people of the Delta for this project to advance,” said Restore the Delta, a Stockton-based group adamantly opposed to a tunneling plan.

Doug Obegi, a lawyer with the Natural Resources Defense Council, said the project will lead to “far worse ecological conditions for native fish and wildlife in the Delta.”

And the Delta Counties Coalition, representing county supervisors from Sacramento, Yolo and other parts of the Delta, called it “another deeply deficient and flawed tunnel plan that would do very little to improve statewide water supplies and bring lasting harm to the Delta.”

Wednesday’s release of the 3,000-page environmental document is an attempt to address the opponents’ concerns.

Tunnel won’t be built until 2028

No matter how it’s received, Newsom’s administration acknowledged the project isn’t going to be breaking ground any time soon.

As it stands, it will take as much as 20 years to complete and will have to overcome enormous regulatory and political hurdles. Besides concerns raised by environmentalists and Delta residents, many Northern California elected officials are suspicious of anything that facilitates the movement of water to the southern half of the state.

Construction would begin in 2028 at the earliest.

“This is a complicated, challenging project that would be built in a terribly environmentally sensitive part of the state ... so it has required a lot of review,” Crowfoot said. “But I can tell you that Gov. Newsom is resolved and has been steadfast on moving this forward.”

Without the tunnel, the Delta as a water-delivery hub will become increasingly hostage to the impacts from climate change, he said, making it harder to ship water to urban Southern California and other regions that rely on the existing pumps.

“The status quo is less and less reliability,” Crowfoot said.

The project still lacks permits, environmental clearances — and a cost estimate. Carrie Buckman, the project’s environmental project manager, said a similar version of the project that’s been considered would be expected to cost $15.9 billion — nearly as much as the twin-tunnel plan contemplated several years ago.

But Crowfoot said the version of the project the Newsom team now supports would probably cost less money.

The 2022 version of the Delta project also is lacking a potentially vital partner: the San Joaquin Valley farmers who also receive water from the Delta, but through a parallel system run by the federal government’s Central Valley Project.

Who pays for the tunnel?

Unlike Brown’s tunnels plan, California would build this project on its own, without any financial help from those Valley farmers who belong to the federal system. Agencies that are part of the State Water Project would reimburse the state for the costs.

An umbrella organization for those agencies, including those serving Silicon Valley and Southern California, quickly rallied behind the plan.

“This project is critical to ensuring Californians have access to high-quality, affordable and reliable water supplies amidst the growing impacts of climate change,” said Jennifer Pierre, general manager of the State Water Contractors, in a prepared statement.

The biggest agency of all, the deep-pocketed Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, has long been a big supporter of a plan to re-pipe the Delta.

The district, which serves 19 million customers, has been forced to institute stiff water-conservation rules this year as its deliveries from the Delta have slowed to a trickle during the drought. In a statement Wednesday, the agency’s response was much more guarded.

“Now is a learning moment to review this proposal,” Adel Hagekhalil, the agency’s new general manager said in a written statement. “And we look forward to dialogue and collaboration with many communities and advocates in the months ahead.”

Metropolitan committed billions of dollars to the project during its 2017 iteration. It even spent $175 million buying five islands in the Delta, saying they could be used to stage construction equipment for the project.

Jeff Mount, a water expert with the Public Policy Institute of California, said a Delta tunneling project has always made more financial sense for urban Southern Californians than it does for San Joaquin Valley farmers — who have resisted participating in the project.

Urban water districts are more easily able to absorb the billions of dollars in costs, since millions of individual customers’ monthly water bills would only need to increase a few dollars a month.

By comparison, a comparatively small number of farmers have to absorb their share, cutting too deeply into their farms’ bottom lines.

Plus, all signs point to urban water supplies in Southern California becoming increasingly unreliable because of climate change — representing an unprecedented challenge for one of the world’s largest economies, he said.

“You’re faced with two stark choices: either reduce (water) demand or increase reliability,” Mount said. “One way or another, the reliability of those supplies is going to steadily go down. So, hey, it might not get built this generation. But I’d be willing to bet in a future generation, they’re going to do it.”

Previous Delta projects faltered

Previous generations have said no. California voters in 1982 killed then-Gov. Brown’s plan for a “peripheral canal” that would route water from the Sacramento River completely around the Delta until it reached the pumps.

In his second stint as governor, Brown wanted to build a pair of underground tunnels directly beneath the Delta as a means of remedying the estuary’s myriad environmental problems. The project at the time was called California WaterFix.

He was so committed to the plan that at one point he told tunnels opponents to “shut up” because they didn’t understand the science behind the project.

His plan became bogged down in litigation and regulatory hurdles and, just as importantly, many of the local water agencies that would have to pay for the tunnels were reluctant to commit.

Newsom’s version is significantly more scaled-down with less water flowing through it. It also seeks to become less controversial to Delta landowners and environmental groups fearful of the project’s environmental harms.

For instance, Newsom’s plan calls for the tunnel to be routed under the estuary’s eastern edge, instead of going under the heart of the ecologically sensitive central Delta the way Brown’s plan did.

The water tunnel also would feed directly into the California Aqueduct, the canal that supplies Southern California with Delta water, eliminating the need to build two new reservoirs called “forebays” that Brown’s version of the twin tunnels called for.

It’s also going to be governed differently than the plan Newsom inherited when he succeeded Brown in 2019. Brown’s twin tunnels were going to be run and financed by the State Water Project and its federal counterpart, the Central Valley Project. But none of the water districts in the CVP wanted to pay their share of the estimated $16 billion cost — and have shown no interest in participating in this new version, either, said Carrie Buckman, the project’s environmental program manager.

The CVP districts, mainly farm irrigation agencies in the San Joaquin Valley, have chronic water shortages and are desperate for more reliable deliveries from the Delta — but have balked at paying the considerable cost of the tunnel project.

As a result, Buckman said, the single tunnel would be built and operated solely by the State Water Project — and would deliver water only to State Water Project member agencies, such as Metropolitan.

Crowfoot said the state is continuing to talk with federal officials about contributing, but has decided “we can’t wait any longer to move this project forward.”

Capturing high Delta flows

Regardless of the changed format, the project is likely to face many of the same obstacles. Environmentalists and Delta residents believe the construction alone would create enormous problems, and the finished product would actually worsen conditions by diverting fresh water from the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers and feeding it into the tunnel, leaving the remaining Delta water too salty for farming.

Crowfoot, though, said state and federal laws would make sure the water flowing through the Delta would adhere to cleanliness standards.

The project, he said, also would allow California to take advantage of an aspect of climate change that causes the state to see fewer but more powerful storms that have the Delta gushing with additional water for short stretches of time.

“Our water infrastructure was not built for that,” Crowfoot said. “It’s critical that we’re able to move that water.”

As it stands, restrictions to protect fish often leave the state unable to pump as much during those heavy-flow events, infuriating water districts who see the water they would have once received from the pumps flow out instead to the Pacific Ocean. Environmental restrictions on Delta pumping have tightened in recent decades, starting with a major federal court ruling in 2007 requiring greater protections for fish.

The issue popped up last fall and winter, when heavy storms battered Northern California and produced high river flows in the estuary for short periods. Crowfoot said hardly any of that water was pumped in order to protect the nearly-extinct Delta smelt.

Had the tunnel been in place, state officials say they’d have been able to move about 236,000 acre-feet of water without harming the fish. That’s enough to supply 2.5 million people a year, according to the Department of Water Resources.


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