With months of contentious hearings ahead this summer, state and federal officials this week filed documents laying out their case that construction of two huge tunnels through the heart of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta would not harm north state water users.
In late July, the State Water Resources Control Board will begin a series of hearings to determine whether work can begin on the $15.5 billion tunnels project championed by Gov. Jerry Brown.
In the first set of hearings, focused on water rights, the state Department of Water Resources and U.S. Bureau of Reclamation will aim to convince regulators that the tunnels won’t take water that belongs to north state water-rights holders, or harm the quality of Delta water.
A second series of hearings, expected to begin early next year, will address the question of whether the tunnels, as proposed, would harm fish and the environment. The hundreds of documents filed Tuesday address only the water-rights issues.
California WaterFix, as the project is formally known, has met with opposition from Delta landowners, as well as many environmental groups and Northern California elected officials who contend the tunnels would further degrade the sensitive estuary and enable south state cities and farms to pump water that doesn’t belong to them.
In a conference call with reporters Wednesday, state officials said their new filing shows those concerns are unfounded.
John Laird, secretary of the California Natural Resources Agency, said that without the project, the Delta ecosystem will continue to degrade, and environmental restrictions that regularly slow the pumping operation will only get worse. As it stands, Delta water deliveries often are interrupted to keep fish from dying at two massive government pumping stations, even during major storms when rivers are rushing.
The two government-run plants in the south Delta pump a major share of the water supply for 3 million acres of farmland in the San Joaquin Valley and 25 million people in Southern California and the San Francisco Bay Area.
“We believe that WaterFix mitigates the risk to our water supply due to climate change and earthquakes, and protects and restores the Delta ecosystem, and offers clean and secure water for much of California,” Laird said. “Without this, California and the state’s economy risk devastating losses of water supply.”
Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla, executive director of Restore the Delta, a group staunchly opposed to the project, said the assertions made in the documents were “borderline fraudulent.” She scoffed at the notion that the tunnels wouldn’t take water from north state farms and cities.
The state plan calls for creating three new intakes on the east bank of the Sacramento River near the north Delta town of Hood. Each of the intakes – screened to prevent fish from entering – would be able to funnel as much as 3,000 cubic feet per second out of the river, but state officials say they wouldn’t keep the intakes wide open all the time. Use would fluctuate based on river conditions and the needs of wildlife and downstream users, they said.
The gravity-fed system would channel water for 30 miles to the Clifton Court Forebay in the south Delta near Tracy. The plan calls for modifying the forebay to make pumping safer for endangered fish.
The water board hearings start July 26 in Sacramento.