Bombshell: Trump administration opposes Delta Tunnels (updated)

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The Trump administration does not support Governor Jerry Brown’s controversial Delta Tunnels project, reversing the Obama administration position in support of the project, according to a U.S. Department of the Interior spokesman.

Interior deputy communications director Russell Newell told Ellen Knickmeyer of the Associated Press that “the Trump administration did not fund the project and chose to not move forward” with the project to build two giant tunnels under the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta.

When asked if this meant that the Trump administration opposed the California WaterFix project, Newell said yes.

The Trump administration has been cooperating with the Brown administration on the planning for the project to date, but this is the first time that the Trump administration has taken an official position on the California WaterFix. The federal fishery agencies recently approved the environmental documents for the project, but without federal support now, this approval will be likely be moot.

In a tweet, Representative Jared Huffman (D-CA.a vocal critic of the project, said today, “Bombshell blow to Delta Tunnels/Water Fix: Trump admin officially opposes. Time 4 long-needed reality check on this?”

On Wednesday afternoon, Newell issued a statement clarifying Interior’s position on the Delta Tunnels and backing off from the earlier statement, stating that the agency “does not expect to participate in the construction or funding of the CA WaterFix.”

“While the Department of the Interior shares the goals of the state of California to deliver water with more certainty, eliminating risks to the California water supply, and improving the environment, at this time, the Department under the current state proposal does not expect to participate in the construction or funding of the CA WaterFix. The Department and Reclamation will continue to work with the state and stakeholders as the project is further developed,” the department said.

Today’s announcement by the Trump administration comes in response to yesterday’s request by Huffman and five other House Democrats for a new federal investigation of the funding for Brown’s proposed tunnels project. That request fellows the Inspector General’s audit of funding for the project.

“The $84 million spent in taxpayers’ money without disclosure to Congress and kept hidden from the public were decisions driven and executed by the Obama Administration and that team,” Newell told AP.

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke “believes that using tax dollars wisely and ethically is a big responsibility and is at the heart of good government,” according to AP.

Led by Representatives Huffman and Raul Grijalva (D-AZ), the Natural Resources Committee’s Ranking Member, the six House Democrats Tuesday called on the GAO to open a “new investigation into the misuse of taxpayer funds” by the Interior Department’s Bureau of Reclamation. California Representatives Mike Thompson (D-CA), Jerry McNerney (D-CA), Mark DeSaulnier (D-CA), and Anna G. Eshoo (D-CA) also signed the letter sent to the  Comptroller General of the United States, Gene L. Dodaro.

“In its September audit, the Interior Department’s Inspector General found that the Bureau of Reclamation improperly subsidized the planning process for the California WaterFix project, also known as the ‘Delta Tunnels,” according to a statement from Huffman’s Office. “The audit identified at least $84 million in taypayer funds spent without disclosure to Congress as required by law, and kept hidden from other water users, stakeholders, and the public.”

The California Natural Resources Agency (CNRA) responded to my request for a comment on the AP revelations with more questions about the Interior spokesman’s comment.

“Thanks for reaching out,” said Lisa Mien-Mager, CNRA spokesperson. “Have you seen an actual statement from Interior on this, or are you working off the AP’s characterization of a comment provided to them? Have you had a chance to clarify with Interior whether the comment provided to AP was intended to be an announcement of a new, sweeping policy position on this project?”

After hearing of Interior’s decision to oppose the project, Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla, Executive Director of Restore the Delta said, “the Trump administration’s opposition to CA WaterFix is another nail in the coffin for the project.”

“Water exporters have only pulled together about $6 billion in funding, and even a single 6,000 cfs tunnel would start at $10-11 billion. Water exporters would need either federal funding or access to WIFIA loans to build the project. In addition, it is highly unlikely that federal agencies will now sign off on the Record of Decision required to begin construction for the project,” she explained.

“It is time for Governor Brown to get serious about solving California’s water problems with 21st century solutions. It is time for him to work with all people across the state to promote and create programs of regional self-sufficiency and to repair existing infrastructure,” Barrigan-Parrilla concluded.

In a Facebook post, the Institute for Fisheries Resources (IFR) responded, “Without massive federal subsidies (i.e. your tax dollars), the tunnels don’t stand much of a chance. Although the Trump Administration is certainly not making this call with healthy salmon runs in mind, fishermen can breathe a little easier knowing that there’s another nail in the coffin for this boondoggle of a project.”

A broad coalition of fishing groups, conservation organizations, Indian Tribes, family farmers, environmental justice groups, Southern California ratepayers, scientists, and elected officials opposes the Delta Tunnels proposal. They say the California WaterFix would hasten the extinction of Sacramento River winter-run Chinook salmon, Delta and longfin smelt, Central Valley steelhead, green sturgeon and other fish species, as well as imperil salmon and steelhead populations on the Trinity and Klamath rivers.

Associated Press article:

For more background information, read my article here: Breaking: House Democrats seek GAO probe into federal scheme to fund Delta Tunnels