As Gov. Jerry Brown leaves office, his controversial Delta tunnels plan is on the ropes.
Most farmers who would get water from the tunnels still haven’t agreed to pay their share. Rather than support the tunnels, the Trump administration is trying to bend federal environmental laws to simply deliver more water through the existing Delta system to San Joaquin Valley farms and cities — and just rejected the project’s request for a big startup loan. Brown’s successor, Gavin Newsom, says he would like to see the project scaled down. Lawsuits challenging the project abound.
Amid that uncertainty, an obscure state council is poised to send the $16.7 billion project back to the drawing board — potentially throwing another roadblock at the tortured, decade-long plan.
On Dec. 20, the Delta Stewardship Council will vote to determine whether the tunnels project — officially known as California WaterFix — complies with what’s known as the “Delta Plan,” a set of policy goals, mandated by state law, that put protection and restoration of the fragile estuary’s eco-system on an equal footing with more reliable water supplies.
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The council was formed in 2009, when the Legislature passed the Delta Reform Act. The law established that water supply and eco-system improvements were “coequal goals” that must be met when it comes to managing the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, the hub of California’s north-to-south water delivery system.
Now the council appears on the verge of ruling that WaterFix doesn’t measure up.
In a report Nov. 15, the council’s staff found the project fell woefully short of complying with the Delta Plan on several fronts. The report said the state Department of Water Resources, which is overseeing the project, failed to prove that south-state water agencies have done enough to reduce their dependence on water shipped through the Delta — as the Delta Plan requires. It said the tunnels project poses unacceptable “conflicts with land uses in existing Delta communities.” It scolded DWR for not using up-to-date scientific analysis on how climate change would affect operations of the tunnels.
At a council meeting right after the staff released its report, board Chairman Randy Fiorini blasted the Brown administration for trying to rush the project through before the governor leaves office.
“Political expediency is not the goal here for such an important and significant project,” said Fiorini, a Brown appointee and a grape farmer from Turlock. “Frankly, I’m frustrated. This project came to me before it was ready.”
He urged the Brown administration to withdraw its petition before the council meets again to vote on Dec. 20.
It’s not clear what the Brown administration plans to do. The state Natural Resources Agency, which oversees DWR, provided a letter to the council from Resources Secretary John Laird declaring that WaterFix is consistent with the Delta Plan, the Delta Reform Act and the concept of “coequal goals” of water deliveries and ecosystem health.
“It’s disappointing that the … council staff (fails) to acknowledge the Legislature’s intended vision for addressing long-term conveyance improvements under the Delta Reform Act,” Laird wrote. “Conveyance” refers to rerouting water from the north part of the Delta to the south, via tunnels or a canal.
Because its authority has not yet been seriously tested in court, it’s not clear whether a “no” vote from the stewardship council would be enough to kill the project outright, said Richard Frank, director of the California Environmental Law & Policy Center at UC Davis.
But Frank said it’s just one more hurdle for a project that seems to be losing steam as Brown’s final term as governor winds down.
“It’s unclear to me whether this has the momentum to get to the finish line,” Frank said. “I’m sure Jerry Brown regrets the fact that he was unable to get it to the finish line before he left office.”
Brown’s successor, Newsom, has been lukewarm on the project, saying on the campaign trail he favors “a more modest proposal” that might include scaling the twin tunnels envisioned under Brown’s WaterFix plan to just one.
“But I’m not going to walk away. Doing nothing is not an option,” Newsom told the Los Angeles Times in October. “The status quo is not helping salmon.”
A spokesman for Newsom declined to comment.
The Delta council is deliberating as the project deals with another setback. In early November, the federal Environmental Protection Agency rejected the Delta Conveyance Finance Authority’s application for a $1.6 billion loan that could have jump-started construction. The authority, which was formed earlier this year by the south-of-Delta agencies that are attempting to finance the tunnels, plans to talk to the EPA and “hopefully we’ll get some ideas about what we can do” to get the loan approved next year, said authority executive director Brian Thomas.
The West Coast’s largest estuary, the Delta is the key battle ground in the state’s never-ending fights over water.
Between the 1940s and 1960s, the state and federal governments built massive pumping stations on the Delta’s southern edge near Tracy to deliver water to 25 million Southern Californians and Bay Area residents, plus millions of acres of San Joaquin Valley farmland.
All that pumping over the years has been linked to a precipitous decline in fish populations, particularly the critically endangered Delta smelt and winter-run Chinook salmon.
The pumping stations are so powerful, they can cause the currents in the southern Delta to flow in the wrong direction. Those “reverse flows” disrupt aquatic habitats and confuse migrating fish, which follow the backward currents to the pumping stations, predatory fish and, ultimately, their deaths.
To comply with the Endangered Species Act and protect the fish, pumping is often throttled back, allowing water that would otherwise head to farms and cities to flow to the ocean.
The tunnels — a pair of underground pipes, 40 feet in diameter and 35 miles long — are supposed to dramatically reduce the reverse flows. They would link the pumping stations directly with the northern end of the Delta, just south of Sacramento. By having much of the Sacramento River’s flow deposited directly on their doorstep, the pumps wouldn’t have to work nearly so hard and the “reverse flow” phenomenon would be abated.
Brown’s administration says pumping could proceed with fewer interruptions, improving the reliability of water deliveries to the south. Proponents say they don’t intend to take any more water from the Delta than they already do, but without the tunnels, south-of-Delta water agencies would eventually face crippling shortages as the estuary’s environmental woes get worse and pumping gets shut down more frequently.
Tunnels opponents, including environmentalists and local government officials from the Delta and greater Sacramento, say the project would actually worsen conditions in the estuary and detract from the quality of life in the largely agricultural region. Among other things, they argue that diverting river water just outside Sacramento would rob much of the Delta a large portion of its pure water, leaving the estuary to depend more heavily on the relatively brackish water from the San Joaquin River.
The tunnels are in a sense a Brown family legacy. His father, former Gov. Pat Brown, spearheaded the State Water Project in the 1960s and the construction of the state’s pumps to deliver water to Southern California.
The State Water Project was never fully finished; an alternate conveyance system was planned as the second phase. During his first two terms as governor, Jerry Brown tried to finish the job his father started. He pushed for a “peripheral canal” to route some of the Sacramento River directly to the pumps, serving essentially the same role as the tunnels.
Voters killed the plan in 1982. Now, in his final term, Brown sees the tunnels project sliding out of his grasp.
Practically all of the big Valley farming agencies have balked at paying their share of the WaterFix costs. In response, California’s largest urban water agency, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, agreed in April to bankroll $10.8 billion of the WaterFix’s total cost, breathing new life into the sputtering project.
Metropolitan spokeswoman Rebecca Kimich declined an interview request and referred questions about WaterFix’s future to the Brown administration.
The Stewardship Council isn’t the only state agency whose approval Brown’s water officials had hoped to win before his term ends. A marathon water-rights hearing that began in 2016 before the State Water Resources Control Board has yet to conclude.
Its members, all appointed by Brown, oversee California’s complicated water-rights system and must decide whether the tunnels project is allowed to divert water from the Sacramento River at a spot near Courtland — the point where the tunnels would begin.
Water board spokesman George Kostyrko said it’s not clear the board will issue a ruling by the end of the year.
Meanwhile, the Trump administration and Congress have largely shunned the tunnels. Instead, congressional Republicans and the president’s staff have sought to secure more water for human uses by bending the U.S. Endangered Species Act to crank up the existing Delta pumps — efforts fiercely opposed by environmentalists, many of whom also oppose Brown’s tunnels plan.
At least 58 tunnels opponents, including Sacramento-area governments, environmentalists, fishing groups and Native American tribes, have sued under California’s environmental protection law, saying the tunnels would further degrade the estuary.
Many of those same opponents filed lawsuits challenging the plan’s financial arrangements.
Even with all the hurdles taken together, the Delta tunnels’ foes say they’re not resting easy, nor are they ready to call the project dead.
“It feels more like the daisy game played by children,” Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla of Restore the Delta said in an email. “Instead of ‘He loves me; He loves me not,’ we are down to a daily scenario of ‘Tunnels; No tunnels.’ We will see which petal we end with on Governor Brown’s last day.”