DWR abandons the WaterFix Project (Delta Tunnels)

Save the California Delta Alliance reacted to the Newsom Administration’s announcement today that it will be abandoning the California Waterfix Project, also known as the Delta Twin Tunnels, with relief and gratitude that the California Delta will be spared from destruction by the ill-conceived water diversion plan.

Today, California Department of Water Resources Director Karla Nemeth rescinded the Department’s approvals of the project, withdrew certification of the project environmental impact report, and withdrew its application for approval before the California State Water Resources Control Board. The California WaterFix project is now officially dead.

The gigantic water diversion tunnels, each 40 feet in diameter, were the pet project of former Governor Jerry Brown. The twin tunnels, as envisioned by the Brown Administration’s plan, would have drained up to half the flow of the Sacramento River, diverting it to the Central Valley for irrigation and to southern California for urban use.

“The twin-tunnels would have ruined the Delta as we know it,” said Delta Alliance Board President Karen Mann, who resides in the Delta community of Discovery Bay. “Finally, after years of battling this water grab, common sense has prevailed,” Mann said.

Along with the announcement nixing the WaterFix Project, Governor Newsom issued an executive order establishing a task force of state agencies to come up with a “water resilience portfolio” to meet California’s water needs for the twenty-first century.

A “portfolio” approach refers to deploying multiple complimentary initiatives to meet water supply needs, including water conservation, water recycling, and more efficient management of the state’s vast water supply network.

Delta Alliance and other stakeholders have long criticized the California WaterFix for its single focus build-the-tunnels engineering approach. “We have consistently raised the need for a portfolio approach, to incorporate conservation and better water management, throughout this process,” said Delta Alliance lawyer Michael Brodsky.

Delta Alliance’s lawsuit to set aside the project approvals for the WaterFix Project, filed in Sacramento Superior Court in 2017, argued that the project violated state environmental laws because of the myopic focus on a single engineering element, the tunnels.

“We argued that Delta solutions must be based on a portfolio approach,” said Brodsky. The new Governor apparently understands this and we are encouraged by the executive order’s emphasis on portfolio solutions,” added Brodsky.

In tandem with the cancelation of WaterFix, the Newsom Administration announced that it would pursue a scaled down single-tunnel project as part of the resilience portfolio. However, the level of commitment to actually building a tunnel project in the Delta is unclear.

The Governor’s executive order states that “current planning to modernize conveyance through the Bay Delta with a new single tunnel project” is one of a half dozen or so initiatives that state agencies shall “inventory and assess.”

“They have certainly taken any tunnel project off of the immediate to do list. They had groundbreaking ceremonies already scheduled for WaterFix,” said Brodsky. By starting the environmental review and permitting process over from scratch, any approval of a tunnel project is now three or more years away.

“If the state wanted to build a tunnel forthwith, rescinding the approvals for WaterFix would not be the way to do it,” Brodsky added.

In reaction to the single-tunnel provision, Delta Alliance Board President Karen Mann said, “We must remain diligent regarding the planning process and the future of the California Delta.”

With an eye on both the death of WaterFix and the new single-tunnel possibility, Delta Alliance member and Delta riverboat captain, Frank Morgan said, “Finally some welcome news, so I will be storing my “STOP THE TUNNELS” sign, however it will remain readily available if needed in the future!”

“Our relief to hear of the rescinding of the current California WaterFix plan is enormous,” said Delta Alliance Board member and resident of the Delta island community of Bethel Island,Jamie Bolt. “We hold out hope that the next plan presented by the state is transparent and mutually beneficial for all,” added Bolt.

Critics of the tunnel plan have long pointed out that the California Delta is already in a state of crisis, near ecological collapse, due to over-diversion of fresh water. “Diverting more water and diverting at a point further upstream, as the tunnels would have done, would have only made things worse for the environment. Much worse,” said former Delta Alliance Board President and long-time tunnels foe, Jan McCleery.

The twin tunnel project was approved by the Brown Administration in July of 2017. However, it never received a key permit from the State Water Resources Control Board, despite three years of often contentious hearings. Dozens of lawsuits–still pending in state and federal court–also challenged the 2017 green light from the Brown Administration. These lawsuits will likely be dismissed as the project approvals have been rescinded and there is no longer an approved project to sue over.

The tunnel project first began to unravel In December of 2018. The California Department of Water Resources was forced then to withdraw its submission of the tunnel plan to a key regulator, the Delta Stewardship Council, after Delta Alliance and other environmental organizations, objected to the project in front of the Council.

One of Delta Alliance’s key objections was to the brutal construction impacts that prolonged construction activities would have wrought on small Delta towns, including Clarksburg and Hood, which were at ground central for construction activities.

When it became obvious the Council would vote to disapprove the project as it was then configured, DWR withdrew the application and said it would make revisions, rather than suffer an outright defeat. At the hearings, several Council members asked pointed questions of DWR about the construction impacts on Delta communities. The application was never resubmitted to the Council.

“Governor Newsome has now recognized the need to take the impacts on Delta communities seriously and has signaled that he will engage Delta communities in the resilience portfolio planning process,” said Brodsky.

Setting the stage for today’s announcement in his State of the State address in February of 2019, the newly elected Governor announced that he did not support the twin tunnel project as conceived by the Brown Administration. He indicated at that time that he would support a single tunnel coupled with other measures, such as water conservation and water recycling.
The California Delta is the largest and most ecologically important estuary on the west coast of the Americas. The Delta consists of eleven hundred miles of inland rivers and sloughs, which empty into San Francisco Bay. The Delta supports many fish and wildlife species, including the endangered Delta smelt. Two-thirds of California’s salmon pass through the Bay-Delta system.

“The Delta is an ecological treasure and a boating and recreation wonderland,” said Bill Wells, Delta Alliance Board Member and Executive Director of the Delta Chambers and Visitors Bureau based in the Delta riverfront community of Rio Vista. “I’ll be dammed if we were going to let the tunnels destroy the Delta without a fight, and the fight was worth it,” said Wells.
Save the California Delta Alliance, based in the Delta waterfront community of Discovery Bay and with hundreds of grass roots members who live, work, and recreate in the Delta, has been opposing the tunnel project in the administrative process and in court for many years.

In addition to the ecological damage of removing the fresh water source from the Delta and construction impacts on Delta communities, Delta Alliance has strenuously objected to the massive construction impacts of building the two huge tunnels through the heart of the Delta’s prime recreation areas on boating and recreation in the Delta.

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