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Why is SMUD fighting Delta tunnels? Think cheap hydro power

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.

Sacramentans enjoy cheap electricity compared to most Californians, thanks in part to a string of hydroelectric dams along the American River.

Which is why SMUD, the Sacramento Municipal Utility District, joined the deluge of regional governments, environmentalists and others suing the state in an effort to block its Delta tunnels project.

The tunnels are Gov. Jerry Brown’s plan to stabilize California’s chronically stressed water supplies by re-engineering the flow of water through the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. Although the project would have obvious impacts on the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers, SMUD said it is concerned about the impact the tunnels, known officially as California WaterFix, would have on its water supplies on the American.

In an average water year, SMUD gets 15 percent of its power from eight hydro plants on the American River and its tributaries, stretching as far away as the Loon Lake powerhouse a few miles west of Lake Tahoe. Known collectively as the Upper American River Project, the hydro plants provide SMUD with its cheapest power source. Hydro costs about half as much as gas-fired generation. When the drought dried up a hefty share of SMUD’s hydro power, the utility imposed a 1.3 percent surchage on customers’ bills in 2015. The surcharge lasted a year.

In its lawsuit, filed Monday under California’s environmental law in Sacramento Superior Court, SMUD argues that the tunnels would reduce the flow of fresh water on the Sacramento River, “substantially degrading” water quality in portions of the Delta.

That would affect SMUD because environmental regulators, “to help rectify that harm,” could force the utility to release more water from its reservoirs to flush salinity out of the Delta, the utility argued. Those releases would put more water into the American River, which flows into the Sacramento just north of downtown, but could hurt SMUD’s hydro operations.

“Such a result could have substantial impacts on hydroelectric generation and on our ability to meet the license requirements” of the hydro plants, SMUD said in a statement Friday to The Sacramento Bee. The plants operate under a license from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

The Delta is the hub of California’s elaborate water-delivery network. Pumping stations in the south Delta take water from the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers and ship it to millions of Southern California and Bay Area residents, plus the farms of the San Joaquin Valley.

Decades of pumping have degraded the estuary’s ecosystem and left some fish species on the brink of extinction. The pumps are so powerful that they can reverse the natural flow of portions of the San Joaquin, putting fish at greater risk. Pumping operations sometimes get shut down or curtailed to protect the fish, leaving water to spill out into the ocean.

At a cost of $17 billion, the state would build a pair of underground tunnels starting just south of Sacramento, diverting a portion of the Sacramento River’s flow and delivering it 40 miles south to the pumping stations. Brown’s administration says the diversion would greatly reduce the “reverse flow” problem and enable the pumps to operate more reliably.

California WaterFix’s fate is uncertain. The south-of-Delta water agencies that would have to pay for the project are expected to decide in the next month or so whether to commit to the tunnels, and at least some are nervous about the cost.

In the meantime, at least 70 local governments, north state water districts and other opponents have sued the state, saying the tunnels would violate the California Environmental Quality Act, or CEQA. Many argue that WaterFix would ruin the Delta, not improve it.

Among those suing are Sacramento, San Joaquin and Solano counties, the cities of Sacramento, Folsom and Roseville, and several groups representing commercial fishermen.

Dale Kasler: 916-321-1066, @dakasler

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