Water & Drought

California unveils revised blueprint for Delta tunnels

This region near Courtland is where part of the Delta water tunnels and intakes would be located.
This region near Courtland is where part of the Delta water tunnels and intakes would be located. Sacramento Bee file

Gov. Jerry Brown’s administration took a significant step toward building a pair of water tunnels through the Delta on Thursday, unveiling the fine print on a redesign that state officials say would reduce impacts on the landscape, improve conditions for endangered fish and enhance water supplies for millions of Southern Californians.

The state Department of Water Resources released hundreds of pages of documents, known as an environmental impact statement, spelling out details of changes that have been previewed by the governor in recent months.

The environmental documents released by DWR didn’t appear to change anyone’s mind. Opponents continued to dismiss the effort as a Southern California “water grab” that would worsen, not improve, the Delta’s damaged ecosystem. Proponents said the project is desperately needed to fix California’s man-made water-delivery network.

Either way, release of the documents marks a milestone in the $15 billion project, which has been in the works since 2006. The statement, the product of a lengthy study required by law, provides the most detailed blueprint yet.

“It’s a big deal,” said Jeffrey Kightlinger, general manager of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, one of the agencies pushing for the tunnels.

But completion of the documents hardly guarantees the controversial tunnels will get built. Federal and state environmental agencies still must sign off, and opponents could file lawsuits to block construction. While the plan doesn’t need the Legislature’s approval, political opposition from Northern California could interfere. Some of the cities and farm districts paying for the system have hesitations about steep costs.

The tunnels would have a dual mission: to help stabilize the environmentally fragile Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, and improve delivery to customers of the State Water Project and the federal government’s Central Valley Project.

“There is an urgent need to improve the conditions for threatened and endangered fish species within the Delta,” the environmental statement said. “Improvements to the conveyance system are needed to respond to increased demands upon and risks to water supply reliability, water quality, and the aquatic ecosystem.”

Known formally as the Bay Delta Conservation Plan, the project calls for construction of two 30-mile-long tunnels that would draw water from the Sacramento River and deliver it to the pumps and government-operated canals near Tracy. From there, the water would be pumped, as it has for decades, to 25 million Southern Californians and 3 million acres of farmland.

Brown has made the project a centerpiece of his final term, going so far as to tell critics to “shut up” until they study it further.

Officials say decades of pumping water south through the complex tidal ecosystem has harmed the Delta’s wildlife and habitat, driving some fish species to the brink of extinction. Delta levees have become vulnerable to a major earthquake, which could flood the Delta with ocean saltwater and force a halt to the pumping of fresh water south.

Currently, water deliveries to areas south of the Delta vary dramatically at certain times of the year to protect fish, and the problem has worsened as the four-year drought has constricted supplies.

“We’ve got to find a way to address the water supply uncertainty in the Delta,” said Jason Peltier, chief deputy general manager at Westlands Water District, the sprawling agricultural agency near Fresno that would be one of the chief beneficiaries of the tunnels. Westlands’ water supplies have been curtailed by problems in the Delta, and the drought has triggered the fallowing of thousands of acres.

While the plan is supposed to improve deliveries, the environmental statement said there are no guarantees that south-of-Delta agencies would get specific amounts of water.

The documents shed more light on a change disclosed last December: Officials propose eliminating the pumping plants originally planned for the tunnel intake facilities on the east bank of the Sacramento River between Clarksburg and Courtland. Instead, the water would travel via a gravity-fed system into the tunnels and be routed into two new pumping plants built on state land near Clifton Court Forebay, near Tracy. From there, the water would be sent to the existing pumps that deliver water via canals to the San Joaquin Valley and Southern California.

The revision would eliminate the need for large buildings and “help preserve the views” from Highway 160 between Hood and Walnut Grove, a state-designated scenic highway through the Delta, the report said. DWR said it has “sought to minimize potential disruption and dislocation of Delta residents.”

Nancy Vogel, a spokeswoman for the California Natural Resources Agency, the parent of DWR, said the latest revisions reflect an effort to shrink the environmental footprint of the project, including its construction, by minimizing energy use, emissions, noise and air pollution.

Map of Delta project 

As previously announced, the Brown administration now is proposing to

restore some 30,000 acres of habitat

in the Delta, about one-third of the original proposal. That restoration would constitute a distinct project, separate from the tunnels. Brown has called the new plan more realistic; environmentalists say it places habitat as a lower priority.

“There’s really no benefit … to the environment. It’s really an infrastructure project to reroute the Sacramento River,” said Osha Meserve, a lawyer for environmentalists.

By pushing huge volumes of fresh water through the tunnels, the project would degrade the quality of water still coursing through the Delta, said George Hartmann, a lawyer for many Delta farmers. That also would affect the quality of drinking water in the East Bay and northern San Joaquin Valley, environmentalists say.

“They’re going to leave millions of people up here with dirty, contaminated and salty water,” said Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla of the advocacy group Restore the Delta.

A coalition of elected officials from counties in and around the Delta also voiced concern. The project “really doesn’t fix anything,” Sacramento County Supervisor Don Nottoli said in a prepared statement.

The revised plan drops earlier efforts to obtain a 50-year permit for the project, after federal agencies indicated they wouldn’t support such a plan. The new proposal calls for a permit “of far less than 50 years,” without specifying a time period. Vogel said an unspecified permit would give regulators greater flexibility in operating the tunnels in case environmental conditions worsen.

Such assurances did little to sway enviromentalists, who argue the tunnels would be run full bore no matter what.

Abandoning the 50-year permit also could cause anxiety for the water agencies that are expecting more reliability in their water deliveries in exchange for paying to build the system.

Jim Beck, general manager of the Kern County Water Agency, said now “there’s less assurance” that enough water would flow through the system to justify the expense.

“Does this project have sufficient yield to make it work? Is it affordable?” he said. He said Kern contractors, including some of the biggest farms in the state, need to study the project more.

Other agencies indicated their continued support. Kightlinger said Metropolitan believes a 50-year plan “was a better deal for California.” But he doesn’t think the shortened permit is a deal-breaker.

Dale Kasler: 916-321-1066, @dakasler