Editorial: Brown needs to answer EPA on Delta tunnels

Some scientists and environmentalists have been contending that water quality would suffer, pollution would increase and aquatic life would be harmed if California goes forward with plans to build twin tunnels in the Delta. Now, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has strongly reinforced those concerns and called for changes in the multibillion-dollar plan.

Gov. Jerry Brown and other proponents of the twin tunnels need to answer the EPA directly and publicly, and either debunk the agency’s claims, or significantly alter the proposal.

As currently envisioned, the 40-foot-wide, 30-mile-long tunnels would draw water from the Sacramento River and pipe it to the southern part of the Delta. In its review of the Bay Delta Conservation Plan, the EPA said the tunnels “would contribute to increased and persistent violations of water quality standards” under the Clean Water Act.

The federal agency, in a recently released letter, recommended that an alternative plan be developed that would allow for “greater freshwater flows through the Delta.” That’s an unwelcomed analysis for water agencies south of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta that rely on water exports and already have ponied up millions for environmental studies as a prelude to building the tunnels.

Stressing that more water should pass through the Delta – resulting in less water for exports to farms and cities to the south – brings into question whether the $25 billion plan will pencil out for agricultural districts and municipal water agencies that would pay for the project.

The letter to the National Marine Fisheries Service, and submitted to the California Department of Water Resources, enumerated a variety of problems and recommended alternatives. It questioned whether plans to restore Delta habitat would help fish populations recover, and called for more analysis of the impacts upstream from the Delta and downstream to the San Francisco Bay.

“This is not the first time and likely won’t be the last time that there is close scrutiny of the project,” Richard Stapler, a spokesman for the California Natural Resources Agency, said in an interview. “This is part of the critical process.”

Will Stelle, West Coast administrator for the National Marine Fisheries Service, said the letter responding to a draft environmental impact statement “raises genuine issues about water quality, strategy and compliance.”

He also was confident about satisfying the EPA’s concerns. “We will deal with those issues,” he said in an interview. “It may require adjustments in operating terms. … The biggest challenge for this project is getting the details right on operations.”

The Bay Delta Conservation Plan calls for tunnels to export water more directly to Central Valley farms and Southern California cities. The goals would be to help restore the Delta’s collapsing ecosystem and provide a more reliable supply of fresh water to 25 million Californians and 3 million acres of farmland.

The EPA letter says that while the tunnel diversions would “improve the water quality for agricultural and municipal water agencies that receive water exported from the Delta, water quality could worsen for farmers and municipalities who divert water directly from the Delta.”

The letter, signed by EPA regional administrator Jared Blumenfeld, recommended changes in the project to deal with potential increases in concentrations of salinity, chloride, bromide, mercury, pesticides and selenium. Blumenfeld suggested alternatives, such as better “integrated water management, water conservation, levee maintenance and decreased reliance on the Delta.”

The California Department of Water Resources has delayed final environmental studies until next year.

In his debate on Thursday with Republican challenger Neel Kashkari, Brown said the tunnel project wasn’t fully cooked. That clearly is true.

When Kashkari cited the EPA criticism, and noted it came from President Barack Obama’s administration, Brown shot back: “That doesn’t make it right, by the way.” To satisfy skeptics, Brown will need to provide a far more detailed analysis about the affect on the ecological health of the Delta.