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Sacramento County alleges secret meetings over Delta tunnels, files lawsuit

How the tunnel project might affect Delta landowners

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

Sacramento County is leading a lawsuit accusing state officials of holding illegal secret meetings about the controversial Delta tunnels project.

The county, joined by the city of Stockton, several Delta water agencies and a group of environmental organizations, sued the State Water Resources Control Board on Tuesday. The suit claims officials with the state water board met privately and illegally as far back as 2015 with representatives of the California Department of Water Resources and U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, the lead agencies planning the tunnels.

In the suit, Sacramento County and the other plaintiffs said the secret meetings provide evidence of "deliberate obstruction, and possible collusion." The meetings show that project opponents won't "receive a fair hearing in this proceeding," the suit says.

The lawsuit attempts to halt the water board's months-long hearing on whether to allow DWR and Reclamation to divert water from the Sacramento River at the north end of the Delta - a critical element of the tunnels project.

The water board's hearing officers, in a ruling issued in early February, acknowledged that discussions took place between the board's staff and officials with DWR and Reclamation. But they refused to halt the hearing, declaring that those meetings "did not violate the law."

George Kostyrko, a spokesman for the water board, said the agency wouldn't comment on the lawsuit. Sacramento County and the other plaintiffs will ask a Sacramento Superior Court judge for a temporary restraining order Friday; such an order would bring an abrupt stop to the water board's proceedings for the time being.

The lawsuit is the latest hurdle facing the embattled tunnels project, known officially as California WaterFix. Gov. Jerry Brown's administration says the $16.7-billion project, by rerouting how much of the water flows through the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, would improve the estuary's troubled ecosystem, prop up ailing fish populations and enable water deliveries to the southern half of the state to proceed more reliably.

Project opponents, however, say the tunnels would rob the northern portion of the Delta of a major slice of its fresh water from the Sacramento River, hurting farmers and other residents of the Delta. They also don't accept Brown's claims that the tunnels would improve the overall ecological health of the estuary.

WaterFix also faces major financial headaches. It's supposed to be financed by south-of-Delta water agencies. But many agricultural irrigation districts, citing cost concerns, have refused to endorse the project, causing a multibillion-dollar shortfall.

Brown's administration is considering building the project in phases, with one tunnel first and a second tunnel at a time to be determined. Meanwhile, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, which has already committed more than $4 billion to WaterFix, is considering taking on a greater share of the project so both tunnels can be built at once.

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