Federal Fishery Agencies Approve Permit To Construct Delta Tunnels

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As I predicted on election night, the President Donald Trump and Governor Jerry Brown administrations have apparently made a deal to fast-track Brown’s legacy project, the Delta Tunnels, considered by opponents to be the most environmentally destructive public works project in California history.

The Trump administration on June 26 released a no-jeopardy finding on the biological assessment to build the tunnels, claiming that the California WaterFix will not jeopardize threatened or endangered species or adversely modify their critical habitat, drawing harsh criticism from independent scientists, fishing groups, conservation organizations and other Delta advocates. The biological opinion is available here: www.fws.gov/…

On a teleconference call for reporters, state and federal officials hailed the release of the controversial document as a “milestone” in the Brown administration’s campaign to build the giant twin tunnels under the Delta.

The fish and water agency officials on the call included Paul Souza, Pacific Southwest Regional Director for US FWS; Barry Thom, West Coast Regional Administrator for NOAA Fisheries; David Murillo, Regional Director for Bureau of Reclamation Mid-Pacific Region; and Michelle Banonis, Assistant Chief Deputy Director at the California Department of Water Resources.

“Our assessment of Water Fix is now final,” said Souza. “It was reviewed in detail by a panel of independent scientists, and represents the culmination of a tremendous effort by our own scientists. I really want to acknowledge all of the work that our team put into this effort. We have concluded that Water Fix will not jeopardize threatened or endangered species or adversely modify their critical habitat. ”

Souza said NOAA Fisheries has documented “some impacts” from construction, and has worked with the DWR and Reclamation to develop a plan to “restore habitat, to minimize and mitigate those impacts.”

“Today does mark a milestone in the completion of our biological opinions, but it’s important to recognize that opinions really are technical assessments of projects themselves, and the actual decision to move forward with California Water Fix will be made at some future time by the state of California and the Bureau of Reclamation,” Souza concluded.

Showing the growing collaboration between the Brown and Trump administrations on water and other environmental issues, Michelle Banonis stated, “On behalf of the California Department of Water Resources, I would like to thank the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) for their significant efforts in putting together the biological opinion for California WaterFix. We feel this is a momentous step towards the future and we feel that this will help in the future in balancing between water and environmental resources in California.”

Many public trust advocates believe the warm relationship between the Brown and Trump administrations over the Delta Tunnels exposes the false narrative, promulgated by the Governor’s Office public relations staff and the mainstream media, that Jerry Brown is the “resistance” to Trump’s environmental policies when he is in reality a collaborator with Trump, at least when it comes to water and infrastructure.

Tunnels opponents strongly disagreed with federal and state officials that the permit is a “milestone” and “a momentous step toward the future.” They noted that the biological opinion for tunnel construction is only one step in the Delta Tunnels project – there are also future biological opinions required for the project’s intakes and operations.

“The federal government has only released a biological opinion on the construction of the tunnels—the public will have to wait for future biological opinions on the intakes and operations of the project,” explained Bill Jennings, Executive Director of the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance (CSPA). “In essence, they’re asking contractors to commit to paying for construction without knowing how the projects will be operated and how much water can be exported.”

Other hurdles the proposal must get over include the decision by the State Water Resources Control Board whether or not to approve the state and federal governments’ request for a permit to change the points of diversion for Delta water exports to San Joaquin Valley agribusiness interests and Southern California water agencies.

The biological opinion approves an “Incidental Take Permit” that would “give the project a permission to harm and even kill federally protected species” in the construction of Governor Jerry Brown’s proposed Delta Tunnels, according to a statement from Restore the Delta (RTD).

“The science in this decision was cherry-picked and not representative of the true scope of harm to endangered species who depend on a healthy San Francisco Bay-Delta estuary for their survival,” said Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla, Executive Director of Restore the Delta. “We are pursuing legal remedies with our coalition.”

In April 2017, the findings of an Independent Review Panel found serious deficiencies in the Draft Biological Opinion, according to Tim Stroshane, RTD Policy Analyst.

“The Independent Review Panel report suggested that the biological opinion had serious flaws and that the Delta Tunnels will be terrible for Delta fish—those that live here year-round as well as those just passing through on their way to and from the Pacific Ocean,” said Stroshane.

Yet the final decision by the Trump’s NOAA found “No Significant Impact” (FONSI), according to Stroshane. He said this is exactly the opposite from the conclusion made by the Independent Review Panel.

Stroshane said NOAA’s decision of “no jeopardy “comes despite the 12 percent reduction in salmon smolt due to reduced water flows through the Delta. Another 7 percent of salmon smolt are killed by faulty fish screens.

Other threatened and endangered species, including Central Valley steelhead, Delta and longfin smelt and green sturgeon, continue to decline dramatically as more water is pumped out of the Delta, the largest and most significant estuary on the West Coast of the Americas.

“What agencies have marketed as ‘adaptive management’ is basically trial and error management. They are saying, ‘Trust us to build it, we will figure out how to fix the harms we cause later.’ That just isn’t acceptable,” explained Stroshane.

John McManus, Executive Director of the Golden Gate Salmon Association (GGSA), also criticized the federal government’s decision to issue a “no jeopardy” opinion for the construction of the California WaterFix, since he said the project would “wipe out” salmon populations.

“Salmon fishermen and women are opposed to this version of the tunnels because it’s designed so big that it will wipe out salmon, fishing families and fishing communities, and the rest of the San Francisco Bay Delta native wildlife,” said McManus. “The two 40 foot diameter tunnels are big enough to divert the entire Sacramento River at most times of the year. The river and Delta downstream of the diversion intakes will basically become a stagnant cesspool if this thing is built as planned. Californians have been denied a vote on whether we support the destruction of the SF Bay Delta, which isn’t democratic, for starters.”

“The reason this project is too big is because they’ve allowed the water users to design it with no balancing to protect the environment. It’s as if they let the fox design the hen house. Of course, he’s going to design it so he can later clean it out,” he concluded.

The Delta Tunnels is based on the unscientific assumption that diverting more water from the Sacramento River so it doesn’t flow through the estuary will somehow restore the Delta. I’m not aware of any project in U.S. or world history where diverting more water out of a river or estuary has resulted in the restoration of that river or estuary.