As the state agency serving as the “Voice of the Delta,” the Delta Protection Commission has been a skeptic of the governor’s proposed plan to build two 30-mile-long, 40-foot-wide tunnels to divert Sacramento River water from locations near Clarksburg and Hood to the water export pumps in the south Delta.
The vast majority of the commission members are local officials from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta who have expressed grave concerns over the impacts to Delta residents and businesses. This concern continues following the recent changes announced to the tunnel plan.
Eliminating the tunnel pumping plants from the north Delta location, with historic legacy communities such as Clarksburg and Hood in close proximity, would certainly reduce impacts to Delta residents and businesses. And moving tunnel muck disposal sites off of Staten Island, an area protected by millions of state dollars for wildlife-friendly farming, would lessen the impacts to sandhill cranes and other wildlife that use this area.
But this is still a project with massive negative impacts to Delta residents and businesses. The changes do not alter the noise that residents in the vicinity of the river intakes would experience over the period of a decade, when their tranquil rural setting will be turned into a 24/7 construction zone. The changes do not alter the nighttime lighting and extensive pile-driving that will occur, to name just two of the negative impacts. Abandonment of businesses, buildings and residences during the construction period, acknowledged in the proposal as temporary, would likely become permanent given the length of the construction period.
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There also is concern over the impacts to residential and agricultural wells from the extensive de-watering that would occur along the tunnel alignment. This could force some Delta residents – many of them of modest means – to relocate from their homes or rely upon trucked water for their personal use. It also could wreak havoc on farm operations, the critical economic driver in the Delta.
Other economic drivers in the Delta are recreation and tourism; a massive construction project such as the tunnels would obstruct waterway channels through riverside construction and barge traffic, with significant impacts to recreational boating. It would turn Delta roadways, especially the scenic highways that wind along the Sacramento River, into truck-haul routes that would deter visitors.
Habitat restoration required as part of the tunnel plan would directly convert approximately 14 percent of Delta farmland, a footprint the size of the city of Fresno. Habitat restoration requirements would impose use restrictions on other Delta farmland. All told, upward of one-quarter of the farmland in the Delta could be directly impacted. And there are fears that the operation of the tunnels could divert enough fresh water from the Delta to impact water quality needed to irrigate the farmland that remains.
Looking ahead, there also is concern about the format of the recirculated environmental documents. The initial Bay Delta Conservation Plan environmental documents totaled more than 30,000 pages and were technical and detailed; reviewing the magnitude of this project was a near-impossible task for Delta residents and businesses, many of them volunteering their time. The revised environmental documents (anticipated to include changes on more than 6,000 pages) must be presented in a redlined format that will make clear where the document has changed and include a good summary of the proposed changes.
Water supply reliability for all of California and habitat restoration of the Delta are state policy, and the Delta tunnel plan is a well-intentioned attempt to accomplish these “co-equal goals.” But state policy also requires that these two goals are achieved in a way that protects and enhances the unique cultural, recreational, natural resource and agricultural values of the Delta.
The tunnel plan fails to protect and enhance the unique Delta values, even with the recent proposed changes. Given all these concerns, more innovation, thought and solutions are needed to minimize impact to the Delta before the plan can move forward.
Erik Vink is executive director of the Delta Protection Commission.