Water & Drought

Groups file first legal challenges in Delta tunnels fight

See where the proposed Delta tunnels would go

The twin tunnels would take water from the Sacramento River and transport it under the Delta. See which islands and rivers they would cross.
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The twin tunnels would take water from the Sacramento River and transport it under the Delta. See which islands and rivers they would cross.

A coalition of environmental and fishing groups on Thursday filed the first of what are expected to be many lawsuits challenging Gov. Jerry Brown’s $17.1 billion plan to build two massive water tunnels through the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

The suits, filed in U.S. District Court in San Francisco, come four days after two federal agencies said the controversial project can coexist with endangered Delta fish.

In a pair of long-awaited decisions, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service said the tunnels, known as California WaterFix, aren’t likely to jeopardize the continued existence of the Delta smelt, Chinook salmon, steelhead and other imperiled species.

The Golden Gate Salmon Association, the Natural Resources Defense Council, Defenders of Wildlife and The Bay Institute allege the findings by the agencies violate the U.S. Endangered Species Act.

“The construction and operation of WaterFix will significantly degrade environmental conditions in the Delta, harming Delta Smelt and other endangered fish and wildlife,” one suit alleges. “These adverse effects include increased salinity levels, reduced (water quality), reduced food supply, increased harmful algal blooms, and loss of habitat, among other harmful impacts on the Delta’s already-fragile ecosystem.”

The lengthy documents, known as biological opinions, represented a pivotal point for the project, which would burrow a pair of 35-mile-long tunnels beneath the Delta in an effort to re-engineer the way water flows through the fragile estuary. The suits ask for the court to order the federal agencies to withdraw their biological opinions, which the groups allege were “arbitrary and capricious.”

Brown’s administration says the tunnels would improve conditions for the fish. That would allow the federal and state pumping stations in the south Delta to deliver water more reliably to 19 million Southern Californians and Bay Area residents and millions of acres of San Joaquin Valley farmland.

One Delta farmer talks about his family history and why he opposes Gov. Jerry Brown's tunnels plan.

Ryan Sabalow: 916-321-1264, @ryansabalow

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