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California water board denies bias claims in Delta tunnels dispute

South-state water district cites 'peaceful' intentions for Delta land purchase

The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California says it's buying a cluster of islands in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to perhaps use as habitat or a staging ground for construction of new water tunnels proposed by Gov. Jerry Brown. Delt
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The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California says it's buying a cluster of islands in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to perhaps use as habitat or a staging ground for construction of new water tunnels proposed by Gov. Jerry Brown. Delt

Two members of the state board that will play a crucial role in the fate of Gov. Jerry Brown’s plan to build two giant tunnels through the heart of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta rebuffed demands from a south state water agency that they disqualify themselves from upcoming hearings on the issue.

On Monday, State Water Resources Control Board Chair Felicia Marcus and board member Tam Doduc said there was no merit to a claim filed last month by the San Luis & Delta-Mendota Water Authority that accused them of having already made up their minds about a critical issue that could translate into less water delivered to south state water agencies that depend on water pumped from the Delta.

The influential water authority, made up mostly of San Joaquin farm-water contractors, and other south-of-Delta water customers like the concept 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 before the state water board. 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. 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 project can’t move ahead.

In a procedural ruling earlier this year, 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. That prompted outcry among some south-of-Delta contractors. If more water is required to flow naturally through the Delta, that potentially would leave less water available to be sent through the tunnels.

Weak local rainfall this spring and summer in Southern California show why California's drought is far from over.

In a ruling filed Monday, Marcus and Docuc said their comments merely reflected statements that the architects of the tunnels proposal have made in presentations and environmental documents. They stressed that the board would objectively listen to presentations during the upcoming hearings before making final decisions on water flow and quality issues.

The pair also responded to allegations of bias lodged by the San Joaquin Tributaries Authority, made up of four San Joaquin Valley irrigation districts and the city and county of San Francisco. That agency accused Marcus of being unable to give the tunnels a fair hearing because she previously worked as western director of the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group that has blamed Delta habitat decline on excessive water consumption.

Marcus and Doduc noted that Marcus also once headed the Los Angeles Department of Public Works, and was a member of the Delta Stewardship Council, a state agency that helps monitor the estuary’s ecosystem. “Her varied experience is evidence of her substantial qualification to serve as chair of the State Water Board and hearing officer in this proceeding, not bias,” they wrote.

Jon Rubin, general counsel for the San Luis agency, said he didn’t know whether he would appeal, which could send the matter to court.

On Monday, the board also agreed to delay the start of its marathon hearings on the tunnels, at the request of the Department of Water Resources and Bureau of Reclamation, which said the extra time could help resolve protests from a slew of environmental groups and Northern California water agencies. The hearings are set to begin July 26 and continue into January.

Ryan Sabalow: 916-321-1264, @ryansabalow.

The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California is spending $175 million to buy five islands in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. Residents say they're concerned.

Gov. Jerry Brown, renewed his pitch for the Delta tunnels project in January 2016, saying opponents "are not right" about their objections.

The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California says it's buying a cluster of islands in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to perhaps use as habitat or a staging ground for construction of new water tunnels proposed by Gov. Jerry Brown. Delt

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