Delta News

Brown tried to smooth the way for Delta project. All he got was more friction

The Delta tunnels project, which received a pledge of $650 million in funding Tuesday from Silicon Valley's water agency, would start south of Sacramento, near Clarksburg.
The Delta tunnels project, which received a pledge of $650 million in funding Tuesday from Silicon Valley's water agency, would start south of Sacramento, near Clarksburg. rbenton@sacbee.com

California officials tried to smooth the way for the Delta tunnels project by slicing it in half. Instead they’re facing more pushback and the possibility of additional delays.

One day after Gov. Jerry Brown’s administration downsized the Delta tunnels project, a host of project opponents tried Thursday to halt a state regulatory hearing that’s crucial to getting it built. They argued that Brown’s decision, after a decade of planning, creates such a monumental change that they need time to analyze the potential impacts on fish, agriculture and the rest of the Delta’s troubled ecosystem.

“It really is a different project,” said Doug Obegi of the Natural Resources Defense Council. Some project opponents urged that the hearing be delayed until June, if not later.

State officials, however, said the project is essentially unchanged and the hearing at the State Water Resources Control Board should go forward without delay. Brown’s administration has been anxious to get the project rolling before the governor leaves office at the end of the year.

While the attempted delay is essentially a procedural issue, it underscores the deep and continuing opposition to Brown’s project from environmentalists, Delta landowners and others. Obegi’s request for delay was joined by representatives of Sacramento area governmental agencies, area water districts and more.

The project, known formally as California WaterFix, would reroute how water flows to the massive pumping stations at the south end of the Delta, where it’s shipped to the southern half of the state. Pumping often gets interrupted to protect Delta smelt and other fish, whose numbers have been decimated by the effects of the pumping.

WaterFix would “move water in a more benign way” and enable the pumps to deliver water to the southern half of the state with fewer interruptions, Department of Water Resources Director Karla Nemeth told the board, urging the panel to keep the hearing on track.

Tam Doduc, a state water board member, said the hearing will be postponed for two weeks while the board sorts out the controversy.

South-of-Delta water agencies are supposed to pay for the project but so far have only pledged about $6.5 billion, well short of the $16.3 billion needed to construct two tunnels beneath the Delta. On Wednesday, in a nod to the funding shortages, Nemeth announced that DWR is planning to build the project in two phases, with one tunnel in each phase. The first tunnel would cost $10.7 billion, she said.

DWR officials believe it can raise enough money from south-of-Delta agencies to bridge the funding gap and at least build the first tunnel.

A day later, at the state water board, her announcement touched off an intense debate. The water board has been meeting for months on DWR’s request for permission to divert a portion of the Sacramento River’s flow at three points near Courtland – where the tunnels would begin. Without permission of the water board, WaterFix can’t go forward.

Obegi and other opponents said the switch to a phased-in approach means the hearing must be halted to give them more time to analyze the environmental impacts. Thomas Keeling, a lawyer for San Joaquin County, complained that the state has just released “endless pages of new modeling” that describe how a one-tunnel project would affect water flows and more.

“This is too big of a change,” said attorney Osha Meserve, representing environmental groups, Delta wine grape growers and other critics of the project.

Nemeth, however, said the hearing shouldn’t be delayed. The state hasn’t given up on building both tunnels at once, she insisted, but is merely holding out the phased-in concept “as an additional option.”

“We are not modifying the project,” she said.

Courtland farmer Russ van Loben Sels describes how the local landscape could change if the twin tunnels plan comes to fruition.

Dale Kasler: 916-321-1066, @dakasler

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