Delta News

New dispute erupts over Sacramento Delta tunnels project

The San Luis & Delta-Mendota Water Authority wants two members of a state agency to be disqualified from a May hearing. The Delta near Walnut Grove is shown.
The San Luis & Delta-Mendota Water Authority wants two members of a state agency to be disqualified from a May hearing. The Delta near Walnut Grove is shown. Sacramento Bee file

A potentially major new fight has erupted over Gov. Jerry Brown’s plan to build two huge tunnels beneath the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, and this time the protests are coming from a group of farmers that wants the tunnels built.

The San Luis & Delta-Mendota Water Authority, a powerful San Joaquin Valley farm water agency, demanded Monday that two members of the State Water Resources Control Board be disqualified from a crucial hearing on the tunnels scheduled for early May.

In papers filed Monday, the San Luis agency said board Chair Felicia Marcus and board member Tam Doduc, the presiding officers in the hearing, have already made up their minds about a critical issue that could translate into less water delivered to San Luis and other water agencies south of the Delta. Several other water agencies pushing the tunnels project have voiced similar concerns, but none demanded Marcus’ and Doduc’s ouster from the tunnels hearing.

The protest raises fresh questions about the viability of the $15.5 billion project, which is designed to re-engineer the plumbing of the Delta, repair its fragile ecosystem and shore up reliability of deliveries of water pumped to the San Joaquin Valley and Southern California. Those deliveries often are interrupted by the need to keep water in the Delta to preserve fish, as well as other environmental concerns.

California WaterFix, as the project is formally known, is already enormously controversial among environmentalists, Delta landowners and Northern California elected officials, who say the tunnels will harm the estuary and enable south state interests to pump more north state water.

San Luis and other south-of-Delta water customers like the idea of the tunnels, but so far most have voiced only tepid support for the project because the Brown administration can’t predict how much water the tunnels would deliver. Those south state interests would be on the hook for the $15.5 billion cost.

The protest over Marcus and Doduc revolves around a crucial decision that the state water board will have to make sometime this year. Currently, water flows down the Sacramento River to the Tracy area, where it’s pumped by the federal and state governments to the San Joaquin Valley and Southern California. In order to build the tunnels, the state Department of Water Resources and U.S. Bureau of Reclamation need permission from the water board to divert water from the river at a point north of Tracy, near Clarksburg, where the tunnels would begin. Without that right, the tunnels project can’t move ahead.

In a procedural ruling setting out the schedule for the hearings last month, Marcus and Doduc said the board intends to require that, once the tunnels are built, water flows through the Delta would “be more stringent” than what is currently mandated.

Their comment raised red flags throughout the community of water contractors south of the Delta who would have to agree to pay for the tunnels project. If more water is required to flow naturally through the Delta, that potentially would leave less water available to be sent through the tunnels and on to the San Joaquin Valley and Southern California.

Several agencies protested. Reclamation and the Department of Water Resources asked Marcus and Doduc to rewrite their ruling and strip out the language about Delta water flows. State Water Contractors, a consortium of south-of-Delta agencies that includes the powerful Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, said in a letter to the board that the ruling on Delta water flows “appears to be biased and constitutes an abuse of discretion” and should be rescinded.

Marcus and Doduc, in a follow-up order in early March, insisted that their earlier ruling “should not be considered a final determination. … We have not prejudged this issue.”

But the south-of-Delta water customers remain concerned about the issue, and the San Luis agency said Marcus and Doduc must be removed from the proceeding altogether. They “have predetermined a critical issue,” the San Luis agency said in the papers filed with the water board Monday.

Jon Rubin, the San Luis water agency’s general counsel, said in an interview Tuesday that the board’s mandates could make “less water available for the Central Valley Project and State Water Project,” the two major projects that pump Sacramento River water to the south state. The San Luis agency delivers Central Valley Project water to a host of agricultural districts in the San Joaquin Valley, including the influential Westlands Water District.

Water board spokesman Tim Moran said Marcus and Doduc would have the responsibility for deciding whether they should be disqualified from the proceeding. “There is also the possibility of the entire (five-person) board considering the issue,” he said in an email.

He declined to comment on the arguments raised by the San Luis agency.

Project opponents seized on the new controversy as fresh evidence that the tunnels would be used to facilitate a water grab from Northern California.

“Clearly, the large agribusiness water districts on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley know that the tunnels do not pencil out unless they grab more water from the Bay-Delta estuary,” said Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla of Restore the Delta in a prepared statement. “They are seeking to manipulate the State Water Resources Control Board permitting process to that end.”

Dale Kasler: 916-321-1066, @dakasler