The Fix Is In: Brown administration approves environmental documents for Delta Tunnels

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Drawing outrage from public trust advocates, the Governor Jerry Brown administration on July 21 approved flawed environmental documents that clear the path for the construction of the Delta Tunnels.

The announcement followed recent biological opinions issued by the Trump administration claiming that the project, considered by opponents to be potentially the most environmentally destructive public works project in California history, “meets” environmental and wildlife protection standards under federal law.

During a press conference call, the California Department of Water Resources announced the certification of the environmental documents for the California Water Fix under the California Environmental Water Quality Act (CEQA).

Cindy Messer, Acting Director of the Department of Water Resources, called the certification a “milestone” and a “ benchmark” in the campaign to build the two massive 35 mile long tunnels under the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta.

The project would divert Sacramento River water to agribusiness interests, Southern California water agencies and oil companies conducting fracking and other extreme oil extraction methods. Project proponents claim the project will create both water supply reliability and ecosystem protection.

“Today, we have reached our next important benchmark in moving California towards a more reliable water supply,” said Messer. “With this certification, our state is now closer to modernizing our aging water delivery system in a way that improves reliability and protects the environment.”

Messer noted that DWR, the operator of the State Water Project, screened more than 100 different proposals before “analyzing these 18 alternatives in depth” in the 50,000 page environmental impact report under CEQA . She said the combined public comment period on these environmental analyses lasted nearly a year.

She claimed the project was “refined several times to shrink its footprint, minimize impacts to Delta landowners, and consider a shift in the regulatory approach under the US Endangered Species Act and California Endangered Species Act.”

She also said DWR today filed a “validation action” with the Sacramento County Superior Court regarding DWR’s authority to, among other things, issue revenue bonds to finance the planning, design, construction, and other capital costs of the California Water Fix.

“The validation action will provide the requisite assurance to the financial community for the sale of the California Water Fix revenue bonds,” she explained.

Delta Tunnels opponents weren’t surprised that DWR today issued the Notice of Determination (NOD) for the California Water Fix — and said they are “considering all possible legal and political options” to fight the project.

“We are not surprised that the Notice of Determination has been issued,” said Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla, Executive Director of Restore the Delta (RTD). “The Brown Administration will celebrate this document as a type of victory regarding the advancement of CA WaterFix. But it’s not. The EIR and the plan for the tunnels are deeply flawed as the project will not create water supply reliability in a world with increased and prolonged droughts, but perhaps up to 75 years of debt to be paid back by water ratepayers as recently proposed by Goldman Sachs representatives.”

“We, other environmental organizations, and other parties in the Delta are preparing for litigation. We will expand our fight in the court of public opinion. We are considering all possible legal and political options to stop the project,” she stated.

Adam Scow, California director of Food & Water Watch, said the certification “is very troubling, though hardly surprising, for Governor Brown to approve of building massive new tunnels that won’t fix any of California’s water problems.”

“This project would waste $25 to $67 billion, with interest, of taxpayer money and devastate the San Francisco Bay ecosystem. It would unfairly burden Southern Californians with higher water bills at a time when we must repair the aging and crumbling pipes under our homes and streets. What’s more, the tunnels would mostly benefit corporate agribusinesses that have over-planted water-intensive crops in the desert,” said Scow.

Scow urged local water districts, including the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power and the Santa Clara Valley Water District, to prevent their ratepayers from being “unfairly burdened by this destructive project.”

On June 29, fishing and environmental groups filed two lawsuits challenging the Trump administration’s biological opinions permitting the construction of the controversial Delta Tunnels.

Four groups — the Golden Gate Salmon Association (GGSA), the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), Defenders of Wildlife, and the Bay Institute — charged the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and National Marine Fisheries Service for violating the Endangered Species (ESA) a landmark federal law that projects endangered salmon, steelhead, Delta and longfin smelt and other fish species. The lawsuits said the biological opinions are “arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion.”

Public trust advocates say the California WaterFix project would not only hasten the extinction of Central Valley steelhead, winter and spring-run Chinook salmon, Delta and longfin smelt, green sturgeon and other fish species, but would also imperil the salmon and steelhead populations on the Trinity and Klamath rivers that have been an integral part of the culture, religion and livelihood of the Yurok, Karuk and Hoopa Valley Tribes  for over thousands of years.

I predicted on election night that President Donald Trump and Governor Jerry Brown administrations would make a deal to fast-track Brown’s legacy project, the Delta Tunnels. That is exactly what has happened over the past several months. Now you can expect to see a series of lawsuits filed against both the state and federal governments to follow the June 29 litigation.