Going Down the Rabbit Tunnel

State Moving Forward with Delta Tunnels Project Despite Problems with Analysis and Failure to Pursue More Environmentally and Economically Friendly Alternatives

Saving and restoring the Bay-Delta Estuary in the midst of a pending extinction crisis requires reallocating some of our fresh water back to the ecosystem. Also necessary is a major investment in alternative water supplies to wean water exporters off the estuary and provide more reliable supplies from conservation and recycling that increase local self-reliance. So why is the Brown Administration moving instead to get permits for a pair of expensive tunnels in the Delta that won’t solve the estuary’s problems and are likely to make them worse?

On October 30, 2015, The Bay Institute and other groups submitted extensive comments on the California Water Fix, the rebranded version of what was formerly called the Bay Delta Conservation Plan, or BDCP. For all its shortcomings, the BDCP was at least intended to serve as a habitat conservation plan under federal law and a natural communities conservation plan under state law. As such, it would have to meet the threshold of supporting the recovery of endangered species and the preservation of their habitats. In contrast, the “Fix” is a more narrowly focused project to build and operate two massive new tunnels to move the Sacramento River to the giant federal and state water project pumps in the south Delta, but without the environmental protections integral to the BDCP approach. The Brown administration made the change when it became clear that fish and wildlife agencies could not approve the fifty-year permit guarantees incorporated in the BDCP because the proposed environmental benefits were uncertain and/or inadequate (it remains unclear, however, whether export water users will pay for new tunnels without such long-term guarantees for their water supplies).

Our comments detail the “Fix’s” serious problems including widespread methodological and analytical flaws, errors of fact, misrepresentation of findings, failure to consider alternatives (especially those that reduce reliance on exported Delta water, as required by the Delta Reform Act of 2009), and other issues. In the end, we found that the State of California’s proposed alternative for constructing and operating the tunnels would largely ignore the effects of climate change and in many cases “…would actually worsen the status quo, for instance increasing the likelihood of harmful algal blooms in the Delta and San Francisco Bay, reducing salmon survival through the Delta, and leading to the likely extinction of several native fish species.”

But the state is moving full steam ahead with the project. On August 25, 2015, the Department of Water Resources and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation submitted a petition to add a new point of diversion for the Delta tunnels to the State Water Resources Control Board. In October, the Board issued a notice stating that protests must be lodged by January 5, 2016, and scheduled 34 days of hearings in the spring on Part 1 of the proceeding (injuries to other water users), before moving on to Part 2 (injuries to fish and wildlife) at a date to be determined. Preparing for and participating in these quasi-judicial hearings, which involve the submission of formal testimony subject to cross-examination, will be a high priority for The Bay Institute. Stay tuned.