News

Delta tunnels: A steady trickle of progress

An aerial view of the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta. (Photo: Jeffrey T. Kreulen)

Gov. Jerry Brown’s massive Delta tunnels project is moving forward through a series of state and federal environmental reviews. But it still faces an array of major hurdles including public opposition, financing and approvals by state water contractors.

The $15 billion project, known as California Water Fix, is on track to finish the state environmental impact report and federal environmental impact statement by the end of the year, said Cindy Messer, assistant chief deputy with the state Department of Water Resources.

The tunnel project, which has been in the planning stages for 10 years, calls for the construction of two tunnels to carry fresh water from the Sacramento River 150 feet under the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

“Things are definitely coming together,” she said. “These immediate processes will further inform the project. As it moves ahead it will be refined. It’s got really good traction right now to keep moving forward.”

California Water Fix faces one less obstacle, following voters’ rejection of Proposition 53, which would have required a statewide vote for any state project financed by more than $2 billion in revenue bonds.

It’s unclear how a Donald Trump presidency will impact the twin tunnels. Trump hasn’t spoken much about water in California, which is in its sixth year of drought.

But he told a Fresno audience in May that there actually was no drought in California and that the state flushed out fresh water into the sea that should have gone to farmers.

“Believe me, we’re going to start opening the water so that you can have your farmers survive,” Trump was quoted as saying.

“If we’re going to save the delta and the San Francisco Bay, flows through the estuary are going to have to be protected and that water cannot be exported.” — Barbara Barrigan-Parilla.

The tunnel project, which has been in the planning stages for 10 years, calls for the construction of two tunnels to carry fresh water from the Sacramento River 150 feet under the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. The tunnels would be 40-feet in diameter and would run 30 miles from Sacramento to intake stations north of Tracy. Construction is tentatively planned to start in 2019 and take 14 years.

Supporters contend the tunnels are necessary because the current water system is out of date and dependent on 50-year-old levees that could fail from earthquakes, floods or rising sea levels. They say the current system doesn’t capture enough fresh water and the pumps trap endangered fish, pulling them to predators.

Opponents say the project is too costly and will destroy the delta by depleting it of fresh water.

“If we’re going to save the delta and the San Francisco Bay, flows through the estuary are going to have to be protected and that water cannot be exported,” said Barbara Barrigan-Parilla, executive director of advocacy group Restore the Delta.

Farmer Rudy Mussi, who grows tomatoes, alfalfa, walnuts, almonds and more west of Stockton, sees the plan has an unfair water grab. “They want to steal our water from northern California and give it to someone with junior rights,” he said.

He believes a better and much cheaper solution is to strengthen the state’s existing levees. “They can spend $2 billion and reinforce all the levees in the delta,” he said.

Then, likely in the summer, part two of the state board water hearings will begin and will focus on how the tunnels will affect fish and wildlife.

The project is going through hearings before the State Water Resources Control Board through the end of January on how the project will impact existing water rights.

The National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration’s National Marine Fisheries Service and the US Fish and Wildlife Service are expected to release a biological opinion on the impact to delta smelt and salmon sometime in March or April.

The tunnel project has also applied for what’s known as a “2081 permit” from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife to show that it complies with the Endangered Species Act. The department will make a decision after reviewing the biological opinion.

Then, likely in the summer, part two of the state board water hearings will begin and will focus on how the tunnels will affect fish and wildlife.

“I think people are getting tunnel weary and they think let’s decide already.” — Chris Austin.

Then, the project has to go before the state water contractors who will pay for the tunnels for a final decision. These include the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, Westlands Water District and the Santa Clara Valley Water District. They have to figure out how to allocate costs and how to pay for everything.

Also still to be completed are designs for the tunnels.

Barrigan-Parilla, the executive director of Restore the Delta, believes the state has vastly underestimated the cost of the project and that it could run as high as $100 billion. She said tunnel projects always have huge cost overruns.

Steve Arakawa, Metropolitan Water District’s manager of Bay-Delta initiatives, said all the water agencies have an interest to make sure costs stay manageable.  He said the $15 billion cost estimate that was done built in a 36 percent contingency to address uncertainties that may come up.

Chris Austin, who reports on state water issues in her blog Maven’s Notebook, expects these issues to be addressed next year.

“The pressure is going to be on to make a decision point,” she said. “I think people are getting tunnel weary and they think let’s decide already.”

 


  • Mary

    According to this mornings Sacramento Bee, prop 53 is not dead yet! The State still has over 4.4 million ballots left to count.Right now No has 51.5% and Yes 48.5%

  • billmonroe
  • aristotle davis

    Will the $15 billion all come from the water contractors and state fund? Unlikely. Costs on lawyers and opposing advocates are better counted in, or the project can’t run over their bodies..

  • Alan

    This is just wrong. We have water issues here in Northern California which should override Southern California stealing it from us. A better option would be desalination plants similar to those used in the middle east and northern Africa. Are we further behind in technology than most 3rd world nations? Perhaps our lawmakers should have some technicians from Africa come and design a system for Southern California.

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