Gov. Jerry Brown’s plan to build twin tunnels beneath the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta was hailed Tuesday as the long-awaited salvation for the damaged estuary and California’s shaky water delivery network. It also was lambasted as a nightmarish boondoggle that would rob water from Northern California and bring more environmental harm to the Delta itself.
And that was just Day 1.
Known as California WaterFix, the tunnels project effectively went on trial as a key state agency began months of formal hearings on details of the $15.5 billion proposal.
Marking the first full-scale public examination of the proposal, the hearings before the State Water Resources Control Board are focused on a comparatively narrow issue: whether California’s giant water-delivery projects should be allowed to carve three new intake points in the north Delta to pull water from the Sacramento River and feed into the proposed tunnels.
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Water board member Tam Doduc implored speakers to stay on topic and not turn the hearings into “a referendum on the WaterFix project,” she said.
It marked a bit of wishful thinking. Advocates and opponents quickly dived into the broader merits of the plan, which calls for diverting a portion of the Sacramento River’s flow at Clarksburg via gravity-fed intakes and piping it directly to the giant State Water Project and U.S. Central Valley Project pumping stations 30 miles away. By altering water flows, state officials say, the tunnels would protect endangered fish species from the often fatal effects of the pumps, enabling the water pumps to make their deliveries to the San Joaquin Valley and millions of Southern Californians with fewer interruptions.
“The existing infrastructure does not work well – not for ecosystems, not for people,” said John Laird, secretary of the California Natural Resources Agency, making the case for the governor’s plan.
Letty Belin, senior counselor with the U.S. Interior Department, the state’s partner in the project, called WaterFix a major priority for the Obama administration. “The economy of the state and the security of its citizens are seriously at risk,” she said.
Opponents contend the tunnels would deprive the estuary of water at critical points, hurting agriculture, recreational uses and the environment. The project “will leave an everlasting scar” on the Delta, said Sacramento County Supervisor Don Nottoli. His district includes the north Delta area where the new intakes would be built.
Linda Boudier, a Sacramentan who owns farmland near the river in Clarksburg, denounced the project as a water grab engineered by south-of-Delta interests.
“This is for Jerry Brown and for Westlands,” she said. The Westlands Water District serves farmers in a large stretch of the San Joaquin Valley.
Even if the water board approves construction of the intakes, the project faces other major hurdles in the next year. That was made clear with the testimony of Jason Peltier of the San Luis & Delta-Mendota Water Authority, a major south-of-Delta agency that is among those considering whether to help pay for the tunnels.
Peltier complained about the possibility that water deliveries from the Delta could decrease, even if the tunnels get built, because of the likelihood of tighter environmental restrictions in the coming years.
California WaterFix “must work not only for the environment but for those who are paying the cost,” Peltier said. Others in agriculture have voiced similar concerns.
The project costs would be borne by the south-of-Delta water agencies, not state taxpayers.