Department of Interior Issues Contradictory Statements on Support for Delta Tunnels

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Wednesday, October 25 was a confusing day in California water history. After a Trump administration official first said the administration didn’t support Governor Jerry Brown’s controversial Delta Tunnels project, he later that day said the Department of Interior would continue supporting the project but wouldn’t provide funding for it.

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, this approval would have likely been moot.

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

Then on Wednesday afternoon, Newell issued a statement clarifying Interior’s position on the Delta Tunnels, backing off from the position taken earlier, and 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.

The two contradictory statements by the Trump administration come in response to the previous day’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 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 initial statement opposing 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.

After reading the statement from Interior conflicting with the earlier statement, Barrigan-Parrilla said in a tweet, “We aren’t surprised that @Interior would give conflicting statements. Basically sums up @CAWaterFix.”

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.

The conflicting statements coming from the Department of Interior only demonstrate how the Delta Tunnels proposal is a toxic project that virtually nobody — other than the water agencies and corporate agribusiness interests promoting it — want to be associated with.

Associated Press article:

Brown Administration Plans to Resurrect California WaterFix as Single Tunnel 

As reported in recent news articles, the Brown Administration intends to resurrect CA WaterFix as a single tunnel as part of the State Water Project, with discussions having begun at Kern County Water District on October 26, according to a news release from Restore the Delta (RTD).

“Metropolitan Water District’s General Manager Jeff Kightlinger stated at the  September 26th Metropolitan Board Workshop on the tunnels that a single tunnel that could extract 6,000 cfs of Sacramento River flow could work and would cost $10-11 billion,” RTD said.

Environmental and water rights attorney with LAND (Local Agencies of the North Delta), Osha Meserve, finds that a single tunnel project, while only minimally reducing the construction footprint, could actually be worse for fisheries, water quality, and local water supplies because water extraction would be concentrated at fewer specific sites. Ms. Meserve states:

“Fewer diversions would intensify impacts, making any new diversions in the north Delta even more like the diversions in the south Delta in terms of production of reverse water flows and other localized impacts on water quality and water levels.  Plus, a fewer number of intakes would further endanger fish attempting to migrate past the proposed new intakes, while siphoning off critical Sacramento River freshwater flows into the Delta.”

“Frankly, there is no ‘one tunnel’ alternative in the EIR/S or anywhere in the project’s permitting documents, undermining the viability of the single tunnel idea.  In 2013, a phased ’emergency build’ alternative was explored, where a 3,000 cfs tunnel was built first, and the 6,000 cfs conveyance capacity is added later.  Documents associated with discussion of an emergency build alternative do not explain the details of the second tunnel, or whether there would ultimately be three tunnels under the plan.

“Presently, there are no approvals or engineering plans for a single tunnel project. None of the permits received or applied for to start construction describe a single tunnel option.  In addition to the construction differences, the intensified effects of operation of fewer intakes serving a single tunnel would need to be reanalyzed at the State Water Resources Control Board and elsewhere.”