There’s no green light for terrible Delta tunnels

An aerial photo shows the area near Walnut Grove that would be affected by the California WaterFix water tunnels and intakes in the Delta.
An aerial photo shows the area near Walnut Grove that would be affected by the California WaterFix water tunnels and intakes in the Delta. Sacramento Bee file

The blaring headlines this week said the biological opinions issued by the federal government gave what could be a final green light to the California WaterFix.

Wrong. There is no green light for this $15 billion boondoggle.

The agencies only examined phase one, which is limited to the construction of the Delta twin tunnels themselves and the expansion of Clifton Court Forebay – not the project’s real environmental danger of actually moving water through the tunnels.

This will require reviews for six more project components – constructing, monitoring, maintaining and mitigating the three intake facilities, as well the water operations plan.

This is critically important because the real environmental danger of the twin tunnels goes far beyond endangered salmon and smelt. The amount of water the tunnels are capable of conveying represents an existential threat to the Delta.

Consider that the average flow of the Sacramento River half of the year is 12,000 to 15,000 cubic feet of water per second. If fully built, the tunnels could transport as much as 15,000 cfs, literally draining all fresh water from the San Francisco Bay and Delta half the year.

We cannot count on federal environmental laws to prevent this. Three times in the last five years, the U.S. House has passed bills that waive these protections, with only a Democratic-controlled Senate and a Democratic president saving the day. I highly doubt Northern California can count on President Donald Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to save the Delta.

Moreover, why are we taking this risk at all? The state’s own analysis in the final environmental impact review discloses that the project will produce no change in annual deliveries for the State Water Project, which supplies water to urban Southern California, and only a 5 percent increase for the Central Valley Project, which supplies water to much of the agricultural San Joaquin Valley.

Why would anyone pay $15 billion for such a small increase in water? Farmers won’t be able to pay such a high price tag unless the taxpayers kick in a large subsidy. Perhaps California WaterFix advocates believe that communities in Southern California will put up the money to subsidize the farmers? Or will other water users who receive no benefit be stuck with the cost?

California has a much better path forward. Instead of wasting time and money on a project that risks massive environmental damage, the state should immediately proceed with projects that actually increase our water supplies. Fortunately, in 2014 California voters passed Proposition 1 to fund useful projects such as underground and off-stream water storage, recycling, desalination, forest management and conservation. If completed, these programs can meet our water needs for decades and at a lower price than the expensive boondoggle that is the California WaterFix.

The investments funded by Proposition 1 create new water for the entire state. They constitute a robust package of infrastructure improvements that almost everyone can get behind, and they will make our state more resilient to fluctuations in both wet and dry years. It is time that we move toward a solution that works for all of California: Create new water, and stop the tunnels.

John Garamendi, a Walnut Grove Democrat, represents the 3rd Congressional District. He can be contacted at