Brown administration proposes construction of Delta Tunnels in two stages

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After months of talk and speculation, the California Department of Water Resources (DWR) and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation yesterday announced plans for a two-stage implementation of Jerry Brown’s controversial Delta Tunnels project, also known as the California WaterFix.

In a letter to water agencies, Karla Nemeth, the recently appointed DWR Director, said the agency in the first stage proposes to “focus on elements of the Water Fix that are consistent with the support expressed by water agencies.”

The option for the first stage includes two intakes on the Sacramento River in the North Delta with a total capacity of 6,000 cfs per second, one tunnel, one intermediate forebay and one pumping station.

The second stage would consist of a third intake with 3,000 cfs capacity, a second tunnel and a second pumping station. This would bring the total capacity of the project from 6,000 cfs in the first phase to 9,000 cfs capacity in total, a volume of water that would exceed the entire volume of the Sacramento River during low flow periods.

“If funding for all elements of the currently proposed WaterFix is not available when construction begins, stage two would begin once additional funding commitments are made from water agencies,” said Nemeth.

She also said the overall cost of the project “has not changed” at $16.7 billion in 2017 dollars. The cost of proceeding with the first stage alone would be $10.7 billion.

However, Delta Tunnels critics and economists have pointed out that once cost overruns, debt payments and other factors are considered, the real cost of the tunnels could exceed $68 billion.

Nemeth also claimed the state is preparing a cost-benefit cost analysis that will become available “soon” to “provide further information about the economic benefit of protecting a critical source of water supplies for the state and safeguarding decades of public investment in the state water project.

In addition, she said DWR will “fully evaluate” the potential environmental impacts of the staged implementation option — and expects to issue a supplemental draft Environmental Impact Statement in June 2018, with a final statement issued in October 2018.

While some reports have mischaracterized the announcement as the scaling down of the project down to just one tunnel, DWR in fact today proposed a “staged implementation” of the Delta Tunnels project, with one tunnel now, another later.

The announcement follows months of statements about changes to the project by Jeff Kightlinger, General Manager of the Metropolitan Water District (MWD) of Southern California, after project proponents were unable to secure sufficient funding from the water districts asked to participate, according to Restore the Delta.

Curiously, the announcement takes place just one day after the California WaterFix hearing officers for the State Water Resources Control Board denied the motions by Delta Tunnels opponents to delay the hearing on the petition for the change in diversions needed to build the project, based on alleged illegal exparte communications between Water Board and Department of Water Resources staff.

The hearing will resume at 9:30 a.m. today, February 8, 2018, in the Coastal Room at the CalEPA building, 1001 I Street, Sacramento, CA.

The officers, Board Chair Felicia Marcus and Member Tam M. Doduc, found that the exparte communications did not violate the law. They also found that no changes to the WaterFix project have been proposed that would warrant re-opening Part 1 or staying Part 2 of the hearing process at this time.

Delta Tunnels opponents said they were very disappointed by today’s announcement — and vowed to stop the project from ever being constructed.

“We find it very disconcerting that part two of the Delta tunnels change petition hearing is slated to begin tomorrow at the State Water Board in light of today’s announcement,” said Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla-Parrilla, Executive Director of Restore the Delta. “Specifically, we are very concerned that this new version of the WaterFix will pursue a larger tunnel than what was presented during part one of the testimony, and before necessary modeling and cost-benefit analysis are completed.”

She also said while protestants of the tunnels are at the State Water Resources Control Board fighting the change in the diversions petition today, Southern California water districts will be evaluating the details of the new project.

“Presently, financial commitments from participating water districts still falls short of the to $10.8 billion needed to build a single tunnel. Consequently, Metropolitan Water District will have to go back to its member agencies seeking additional funding,” she explained.

“Realistically, there is not enough time between now and December, 2018, when DWR plans to break ground—whether symbolically or physically. Impacted parties have the right to measure the impacts of a single 6,000 cfs tunnel on fisheries, water quality for environmental justice communities, and the public interest. DWR’s attempts to jam through a permit for one project, while working secretly with water exporters to create another, is unconscionable, especially when we consider their mission,” Barrigan-Parrilla-Parrilla concluded.

Delta Tunnels opponents say the project would hasten the extinction of Sacramento winter and spring run Chinook salmon, Central Valley steelhead, Delta and longfin smelt, green sturgeon and other fish species, as well as imperil the salmon and steelhead populations on the Trinity and Klamath rivers.

The letter from Nemeth is available here: