DWR Pulls Delta Tunnels Permits, Takes Steps for One Tunnel Planning Process

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The Newsom administration on May 2 shelved the plan to build twin Delta Tunnels — and announced it will start a renewed environmental review for a single Delta Tunnel.

As the Delta smelt moves closer and closer to extinction in the wild, the Department of Water Resources (DWR) reported that it is “taking formal steps” to withdraw proposed permits for the WaterFix project and begin a renewed environmental review and planning process for “a smaller, single tunnel project that will protect a critical source of water supplies for California.”

Thus, this announcement marks the end of the twin tunnels project that Arnold Schwarzenegger began in 2007, itself a revival of the peripheral canal plan that the voters overwhelmingly rejected in the November 1982 election. After beginning his third term as Governor, Jerry Brown continued to pursue the Bay Delta Conservation Plan, as it was called, until it was renamed the California WaterFix in 2015.

“Today’s actions implement Governor Gavin Newsom’s direction earlier this year to modernize the state’s water delivery infrastructure by pursuing a smaller, single tunnel project through the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta,” according to a statement from DWR. “The project is needed to protect water supplies from sea-level rise and saltwater intrusion into the Delta, as well as earthquake risk. It will be designed to protect water supply reliability while limiting impacts on local Delta communities and fish.”

However, Newsom continues to support one smaller Delta Tunnel that is based on the same controversial concept of diverting water from the Sacramento River under the Delta to fulfill the “coequal goals” of ecosystem restoration” and “water supply reliability.”

“A smaller project, coordinated with a wide variety of actions to strengthen existing levee protections, protect Delta water quality, recharge depleted groundwater reserves, and strengthen local water supplies across the state, will build California’s water supply resilience,” claimed Natural Resources Secretary Wade Crowfoot.

DWR Director Karla Nemeth took action to rescind an array of permitting applications for the WaterFix project, including those in front of the State Water Resources Control Board, California Department of Fish and Wildlife, and federal agencies responsible for compliance with the Endangered Species Act.

DWR said it will “work with local public water agencies that are partners in the conveyance project to incorporate the latest science and innovation to design the new conveyance project, and work with Delta communities and other stakeholders to limit local impacts of the project.”

Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla, executive director of Restore the Delta, praised DWR’s withdrawal of the application for the twin tunnels project.

“We are extremely pleased that the Department of Water Resources has withdrawn its application for the twin tunnels project,” she said. “We are relieved that our coalition’s critique of CA WaterFix made before the State Water Resources Control Board was taken seriously. We support a portfolio approach to solving California’s water challenges.”

“We will collaborate and participate in as many processes as possible, and we will support other communities in California working on regional water solutions. Naturally, as Delta people we don’t care for tunnels, but we look forward to engaging in an honest and transparent public process that helps move us towards the co-equal goals of the Delta Reform Act of 2009, including reducing reliance on the Delta,” Barrigan-Parrilla stated.

She listed a sample of some of the questions Restore the Delta will be asking as further details about the new tunnel plan become public:

  1. Will water quality for the Delta be protected for all beneficial uses (swimmable, drinkable, fishable, farmable)?
  2. Will impacts for residents be reduced and will legacy towns be protected?
  3. Will fisheries be restored, including meeting the doubling goals for salmon?
  4. Will Delta environmental justice communities in Stockton and Antioch be protected from degraded water quality, and construction emissions?
  5. Is there enough water available to justify paying for a tunnel, especially during times of extended drought? And if so, will exported water first be used to improve drinking water quality for the 1 million Californians in need of safe drinking water.

John McManus, President of the Golden Gate Salmon Association (GGSA), also praised the Newsom Administration for withdrawing the twin tunnels permit application:

“We are grateful to Governor Newsom and his team for the steps taken today. As a result, we’re more hopeful for the future of the salmon runs we rely on to feed our families and keep our communities whole. We’re more hopeful that California’s incredible salmon runs, natural resources, and environment might have a better chance to heal.”

“GGSA was party to a lawsuit challenging the twin tunnels and that suit may have played into the governor’s decision to call for a reset. Salmon fishermen and women look forward to working with the governor’s team on ways forward that share the state’s precious water in ways that work better for everyone,” McManus stated.

The water contractors that have been pushing for the construction of the Delta Tunnels also “declared victory” with DWR’s announcement.

“We are pleased that Gov. Newsom’s Administration has reaffirmed a strong commitment to modernize the state’s water delivery infrastructure with a single-tunnel project in the Delta,” said Jeff Kightlinger, General Manager of the Metropolitan Water District (MWD). “We will work with the administration to expeditiously advance a project that is long overdue to both meet the water reliability needs of the state and minimize impacts to the communities and ecology of the Delta.”

Deirdre Des Jardins of California Water Research, in response to DWR’s announcement, commented, “Normally petitions for Change in Point of Diversion go through a protest resolution phase, which can take years. At the request of the Department of Water Resources, the protest resolution phase for the WaterFix Change Petition was skipped and a hearing was scheduled.”

“During the hearing, the project was changed repeatedly to address protests to the Change Petition, including the signing of a new Coordinated Operating Agreement in December of 2018. The withdrawal of the WaterFix project approval is just the latest effort to resolve protests to the project. The project should never have gone to a hearing,” she concluded.

Many Delta leaders, fishermen, Tribal leaders, conservationists and environmental justice advocates are opposed to the very concept of the Delta Tunnels, whether one or two, since the plan is based on the concept that taking more water out of the Sacramento River before it reaches the Delta will “restore” the ecosystem, even though there is no case in world or U.S. history where diverting more water out of a river or estuary has resulted in the restoration of that river or estuary. For them, the concept of a Delta Tunnel, canal or similar conveyance is non-negotiable.

“The California Delta Chambers & Visitor’s Bureau opposes diverting the Sacramento River around the Delta,” said Bill Wells, the Executive Director of the California Delta Chambers & Visitor’s Bureau., on February 12. “We have never made a distinction over the method of diversion, whether it be canals, tunnels, or any other conveyance. Diverting the river will destroy what is left of the Delta. The water barons in the south will want as much water as they can get out of the system and they will not finance it unless they are assured of this. We do not trust them!”

On April 29, Governor Gavin Newsom issued an executive order directing state agencies to “prepare a water resilience portfolio” for California.

“California’s water challenges are daunting, from severely depleted groundwater basins to vulnerable infrastructure to unsafe drinking water in far too many communities. Climate change magnifies the risks,” said Governor Newsom. “To meet these challenges, we need to harness the best in science, engineering and innovation to prepare for what’s ahead and ensure long-term water resilience and ecosystem health. We’ll need an all-of-above approach to get there.”

A copy of the order issued by Governor Newsom can be found here.

DWR’s announcement and the Governor’s Executive Order were made at a time that the Delta smelt, a fish found only in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, moves closer and closer to extinction in the wild.

For the first time ever, a fish survey that’s conducted every autumn by the state turned up zero Delta smelt, considered an indicator species that demonstrates the health of the entire Delta ecosystem.

Once the most abundant fish in the entire estuary, the smelt population has collapsed to the point where not one fish was found in the California Department of Fish and Wildlife’s 2018 Fall Midwater Trawl, the lowest in history.

While decades of water exports and environmental degradation under the state and federal governments have brought the smelt to the edge of extinction, representatives of fishing and environmental groups and tribes note that former Gov. Jerry Brown and his administration did nothing to reverse the trend.

“Gov. Brown’s legacy is likely to be several extinctions of fish that flourished in this estuary for millennia,” said Bill Jennings, executive director of the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance.

More information: https://www.newsreview.com/sacramento/on-extinctions-edge/content?oid=28051331