Opponents of Delta tunnels deserve their day in court

Fishermen try their luck in the San Joaquin-Sacramento River Delta near Courtland.
Fishermen try their luck in the San Joaquin-Sacramento River Delta near Courtland. AP

It’s one thing to streamline environmental reviews for a major project, which happened for the Golden 1 Center in downtown Sacramento. It’s entirely another to dismiss any environmental lawsuits and prevent others from being filed.

That’s what a Southern California congressman is trying to do, to clear the path for the highly contentious $17 billion Delta tunnels project. It’s an outrageous overreach on a slippery legal slope. Congress should reject it.

This latest twist in the long-running drama over the Delta tunnels came last week when Republican Ken Calvert of Riverside County, chairman of the House appropriations subcommittee for the Interior Department, unveiled a spending bill. Buried in the fine print is a provision that would prohibit state or federal suits against the final environmental impact report for what is now called California WaterFix.

Gov. Jerry Brown says it would help endangered fish and ensure a more reliable water supply by constructing tunnels under the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta to deliver water to aqueducts that supply farms in the Central Valley and cities in Southern California. In July 2017, the state announced that the project complies with the California Environmental Quality Act.

But critics say the tunnels wouldn’t help the fish and question their feasibility and cost. More than 50 people and groups, including Sacramento-area elected officials, have sued over various aspects of the project. Rather than stopping the tunnels entirely, it’s more likely that these lawsuits – even if successful – would force changes. Many of them could be for the better, for the environment and local interests.

Calvert’s provision would wipe out many of those lawsuits and would prevent future ones. He says the tough decisions have been made during a decade of study, and it’s time to move forward with the project.

Environmental and anti-tunnel groups loudly object to his move, saying that Republicans are trying to silence tunnel opponents. In an op-ed published in The Sacramento Bee, Rep. John Garamendi, a Walnut Grove Democrat, warned that the provision “is one of the biggest threats Northern California and the Delta has faced yet, and it sets a horrible precedent.”

They’re right.

Whatever your view on the tunnels – and we see it as a project that has taken far too much attention from California’s broader water needs – there’s no denying that such a far-reaching and expensive undertaking should be closely scrutinized. So while we certainly don’t want litigation that drags on forever, opponents deserve their day in court.