Destroying the Delta

The Main Threat To the Delta – The Delta Tunnels

Why the concern? Once built, the tunnels will remove fresh water before it can flow through the Delta. Today when the fresh Sacramento water flows through the Delta, it is used by fish, fowl, farmers, community drinking water, boaters and recreation users. Removing the fresh water before it enters the Delta will cause salt intrusion from the ocean and increase the percentage of water from the polluted, salty San Joaquin River.

In addition, the affect of the tunnels in the north, according to the National Marine Fisheries Services report, may cause extinction of Salmon in the Sacramento River.

More immediately, Chapters 4 and 5 of the California WaterFix Final Plan (December 2016) described the CONSTRUCTION DESTRUCTION that will occur during at least 10 years of tunnel construction and the reeking, toxic tunnel muck that will be left behind after the project is completed. Although the map below is somewhat out-of-date with the recent alignment change in the northern tunnel route and muck dump sites, the through-Delta construction plan continues to go directly through scenic waterways and favorite recreational sloughs. Removing access to a significant amount of the Delta boating and recreational waterways will have a huge economic impact to boating communities, marinas and other businesses.


  • The California WaterFix Delta Tunnels – The Delta Tunnels are the only plan being considered by the state but they will completely destroy the Delta(1).
  • Tunnel Construction Destruction – The tunnel construction path is right through the heart of the Delta! It will destroy scenic waterways, favorite boating areas and leave giant, smelly muck ponds behind on farmers’ land and just over a mile from Discovery Bay.

The Real Reasons why the Delta is in Crisis

  • Lack of Fresh Water Flows – Because of the lack of fresh water, The Salmon (and other fish) populations are rapidly declining .There’s many stressors causing decline of the fish species but only more fresh water flows can truly solve the problem.
  • Reverse Flows – The huge amounts of water currently being exported from the South Delta to send south combined with low flows in the San Joaquin River result in the the Delta flowing South at times instead of West out through the Golden Gate. The problem here is less the reverse flows and more the amount of water being exported, particularly in dry years.
  • Gates – Gates projects, like the 2009 2-Gates Fish Protection Project, have been shown to cause damage to migrating fish. Yet they are still a major component in alternatives proposed in the WaterFix and Delta Plan.
  • Bills – Bills have been proposed and continue to be proposed at the state and federal level to remove protection to endangered species, such as salmon, in order for the water contractors to increase water exports.
  • Bass – Bass are not a threat to the Delta; but steps continue to be considered to take steps to eliminate them, calling them an “invasive species” even though they have peacefully coincided with salmon for years and are not proven to be an actual threat.

There Are Better Solutions

There are many alternatives to the WaterFix Delta Tunnels that would not destroy the Delta and would actually produce more water and water storage. However; they aren’t being considered.

Most include a variety of measures to decrease reliance on the Delta and improve regional self-sufficiency throughout the state. Components of any responsible plan must consider:

  • Conservation.
  • Desalination.
  • Recycling.
  • Restoring the Tulare Lake Basin: a huge natural lake in the Central Valley that for years before it was dried up by the cotton farmers was a natural percolating system, restoring ground water tables and aquifers.
  • Improving the Delta with the right-sized conveyance, levee improvements, and opportunistic habitat restoration.
  • Using overpumped groundwater systems to store water in wet years to use in dry years—so-called “conjunctive use or “Little Sip/Big Gulp.”
  • Retiring drainage-impaired, salt-affected farmland in the Central Valley (Westlands Water District) that is polluting the ground water and the San Joaquin River.

Specific plans that have been produced and sent to the Bay Delta Conservation Plan for evaluation include:

  • The Environmental Water Caucus’ Responsible Exports Plan.
  • Tulare Lake Proposal.
  • Dr. Pyke’s Sherman Island (west side) diversion plan.
  • John Garamendi’s A Water Plan for All of California.
  • Portfolio-Based Alternative. The portfolio plan advocates increased flows of freshwater from the Delta, reduced exports, and greater investment in local infrastructure projects and conservation to reduce reliance on the Delta.

    STCDA agrees with all those goals but we don’t think we need a 3000 cfs tunnel to achieve them. Plus even a 3000 cfs tunnel would likely result in waterways being destroyed, legacy farm towns disrupted, and much of the other construction destruction currently associated with the larger tunnels. The worse case is if any tunnels take water directly from the Sacramento River before allowing the fresh water to flow through the Delta.

    The most reasonable suggestion is to reconsider the Western Alignment Alternative. Several proposals have been made to route the tunnel(s) long the Western Alignment option proposed in the BDCP, ending by Sherman Island. There either Dr. Pyke’s idea of building a holding area there and/or later proposals to take that water, run it through a desalination process and ship the cleaned water to the Clifton Court Forebay. This will avoid taking the construction through the most sensitive areas of the Delta.

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The BDCP’s Delta Tunnels

The deceptively named “Bay and Delta Conservation Plan” (BDCP) is the state’s plan for solving the Delta crisis. The current water plans include huge Delta Tunnels which will cost 2.5 times the benefits according to the University of the Pacific Study and will decimate the Delta fish, fowl, wildlife and Delta Communities.

The tunnels will remove fresh water before it flows through the Delta.

Who will the Tunnels Benefit?

  • A handful of corporate mega-farmers to the south.
  • A few powerful L.A. developers.

A good article about one of the corporate farmers who is behind the water grab is “Meet the Billionaire Couple Who Took Over California’s Water Supply”.

Who will the Tunnels Harm?

  • Delta fish, birds, and wildlife.
  • Delta farmers.
  • Delta communities.
  • Delta businesses.
  • Delta boaters.
  • Delta fisherman.
  • Commercial fisherman.
  • Northern and Southern California urban rate-payers whose water rates will increase.
  • Schools. Projects to fix the damage caused by over-exporting will rob state tax revenues.

Governor Brown plans to build the tunnels now and solve the environmental issues later!

The Fox are Guarding the Henhouse
The BDCP plan claims they will use “Adaptive Management” to insure protection of the Delta while exporting water south. The issue is that even the current level of water exporting has caused an environmental collapse to the region and has lowered the water quality for the Delta farmers who farm the most fertile soil in the state. Southern interests are doing everything they can to point fingers everywhere except on the effects of over-pumping. Right now the Water Contractors are running the show and the results of their efforts will be bad for the Delta and Northern California. For details about how the new BDCP “Adaptive Management” won’t help, see “The Fox are Guarding the Henhouse”.

The goal of the State Water Contractors is to increase the amount of water exported from the Delta to the Westland and Southern Corporate farmers in the central valley desert along I-5 and to Los Angeles Metropolitan District water users.

The Delta is more than a “plumbing fixture” to export drinking water to Central and Southern California. The Delta is an important freshwater estuary: important for the ecosystem; important the local farmers and local economy; and important to thousands who enjoy swimming, fishing, boating, and water sports.

Read more in the SFGate Article “Some Thoughts on the Delta Tunnels”.

The Tunnels are not the Solution
The Tunnels will export even more water south. The “Bay and Delta Conservation Plan” (BDCP) is the project plan for these giant tunnels.

  • It is deceptively called a “conservation” plan.
  • It takes water out of the Delta BEFORE it can be used for farming and fish.
  • It does not create one gallon of new water or storage.
  • It robs from one area to send water to another.
  • It tears up prime agricultural farm land.
  • It wrecks popular boating and recreation waterways.
  • It is extraordinarily expensive.
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Tunnel Construction Destruction

Planned construction and remaining “muck” ponds

  • Construction will occur for 10-15 years impacting farmers, boaters, and communities.
  • Roads and waterways will be moved, blocked and closed.
  • Docks as long as football fields will be built up and down the Delta for barges to deliver construction equipment.
  • Enormous “muck” ponds – huge reeking toxic waste areas – will be left behind on farmers’ lands and near favorite anchorages (Mildred Island, Horseshoe and Tinsley), near the Legacy town of Walnut Grove and just over a mile east of the populated town of Discovery Bay.
  • Farmlands and scenic waterways will be destroyed.

By the Numbers

  • 35 miles: Distance from the Sacramento River intakes to the existing pumps near Tracy.
  • 40 feet: Diameter of each of the two tunnels.
  • 60 feet: Diameter of shafts down to the tunnels that will remain in the middle of farmlands.
  • 7,000 cubic yards: Amount of “muck” produced EACH DAY by drilling.
  • A football field 10,000 feet high: The total amount of tunnel muck left behind.
  • 50,000 acres: Delta farmland that could be taken out of production using eminent domain.
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Lack of Fresh Water Flows

The ecology of the Delta is in crisis. The salmon and other fish species are near extinction. There is one simple reason – too much water is being exported to send south. Although the Bay and Delta Conservation Plan (BDCP) is pages and pages (8,000) about other reasons why the fish are failing and how they can export even more water and save the fish by adding habitat and other projects, the plain and simple answer is that the cause is too much water being exported for the estuary to survive. As a result:

  • Delta fish species including salmon neared extinction. To try to save the salmon, all Commercial salmon fishing was halted off the entire coast of California and Oregon during 2008/2009.
  • Salt water intrusion threatens Delta communities’ drinking water and Delta farms.
  • Farmers to the south, near I-5, have negotiated water contracts for more water than can be safely exported. This has created a lose-lose situation for the state.

An interactive map of California Water Rights shines a light on the problem; namely “Currently, water rights holders claim they divert in aggregate approximately 250 million acre feet of water each year. California receives 71 million acre feet of usable water from annual precipitation.” And you wonder why we are having water wars?

“For the past century, powerful special interests claimed ownership of both real and imaginary water through political contributions. Other states outgrew this corrupt practice long ago, but not California. The California Water Rights Atlas may be the sunlight that finally breaks the fog bank of chaos and mismanagement that cripples the state’s water system,” says Former Brown Administration Resources Secretary Huey Johnson, president of the Resource Renewal Institute that publishes the interactive map.

Because the farmers near I-5 in the South believe they have rights to more water than exists, the plant thirsty crops like cotton and almonds. The chart below shows the increase in almond acreage over the years, one of the primary reasons there has been an increase in water exports south.

Increase of almond acreage over the years

Note that the increase continued even through the drought years of 2008/2009 when Commercial salmon fishing was halted off the entire coast of California and Oregon to save the salmon; even when the farmers complained about the pumps being stopped by court order during those years to save the equally threatened Delta smelt.

Start with the Delta Flows: Step one of the Delta Stewardship Council’s “Delta Plan” and the BDCP was supposed to be to start with the science about how much fresh water flow the Delta needed to remain healthy. The State Water Resources Control Board provided that answer in August 2010: 60% to 75% depending on how wet/dry the year was. Current exports exceed 50%. The DSC and BDCP did not like that answer as it meant decreasing exports, not increasing them. Hence they have spent years and hundreds of millions of dollars to try to “find” a different answer. Meanwhile the fish suffer.

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Salmon in the Delta may become Extinct

As a result of increased exporting, the salmon population neared extinction during the drought years of 2008 and 2009.
Water exports South – 5-year averages through 2007

Decline of the salmon
Decline of the salmon over that same timeframe

The correlation seems quite clear. Fish need fresh water to survive. Stop the pumps, they begin to recover.

The United States National Marine Fisheries Service says that the tunnels will cause Georgiana Slough and the Sacramento River to reverse flow at times and may case extinction of Salmon in the Sacramento River.

Reverse Flows currently in the San Joaquin

The huge amounts of water currently exported cause the water in the Delta at times to flow south to the pumps instead of west to the ocean.
This sucks smelt into the pumps and may confuse salmon who need strong currents to the ocean to help them make their journey. The answer is not the tunnels, the answer is to export less water overall – especially during drought months.

If instead the tunnels are built and take water north before it flows through the Delta, there will be even more salt water intrusion into the Delta farms and local water supply.

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Other Threats to the Delta – Gates and Barriers

In 2009 the 2-Gates “Fish Protection” Project was planned for installation in October 2009 but was postponed due to objections by the STCDA with backing from the Discovery Bay and surrounding communities. In 2016, the False Rive Salinity Gates was installed for a few months.

Gates and “operational barriers” are not safe for boaters to pass through. They severely impact boating, impact safety rescue operations (coast guard, marine sheriffs – could cost lives), impact local economies, and negatively effect affect the fish and wildlife. The list of concerns and issues with installing gates in primary navigation waterways is long and significant.

The California WaterFix includes “Alternative 9” which would install many barriers throughout the Delta, turning Middle River into a virtual pipeline, blocking all boats. In addition, other gates would block boats from going from Old River to the Channel. Basically, boats in the South Delta west of Middle River (Discovery Bay, Orwood, Bethel Island) would be stopped from leaving except by False River which has been closed in the past.

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Bills – Removing Environmental Protections for Salmon

Other types of efforts that have been underway include the 2010 “Feinstein Senate Jobs Bill Amendment” to mandate increased pumping levels and suspend protection for the chinook salmon (an amendment which could finally cause the destruction of the remaining salmon in California). This amendment is currently on-hold but Sen. Feinstein has said she “reserves the right to bring it back should it become necessary.”

More recently, in May 2013, US Congressman Jim Costa (D-CA) has introduced legislation to exempt the Central Valley and State Water projects from Delta pumping restrictions required under the Endangered Species Act to protect Central Valley salmon and Delta smelt. See Dan Batcher’s article for more details. Or read the text of the bill at

This is reminiscent of the addition to the Senate Jobs Bill attempted by Sen. Feinstein in February 2011 to suspend the Environmental Species Act (ESA) protections for Chinook salmon and mandate certain pumping regimes from the Delta. That addition was in response to requests from her friend and Paramount Farms’ Stewart Resnick.

The current Costa bill is supported by San Joaquin Valley water districts, including the Westlands Water District, Friant Water Authority, and the San Luis and Delta Mendota Water Authority. Other backers of the bill include the Latino Water Coalition, an agribusiness “Astroturf” group, and [of coures] Paramount Farms, owned by agribusiness tycoon Stewart Resnick, the largest orchard fruit grower in the world.

These are the same people, backers of the BDCP, who wonder why we don’t trust them to operate the pumps in a way that will save the Delta!

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Pointing Fingers at the Bass

In November 2011, a proposal was being considered by the California Fish & Game due to a Agricultural [Westlands] lawsuit which would eliminate the striped bass from the Delta. It tried to claim that the striped bass were causing the demise of salmon and smelt, NOT excessive pumping of water (opposite all scientific evidence – read more). Obviously, that was smoke and mirrors.

FACT: When salmon populations are high, bass populations are high. When salmon populations are low, bass populations are also low. The bass do not feed off or impact the salmon.

Fortunately the California Fish and Game Commission in February 2012 took final action to reject the Department of Fish and Game’s controversial proposed changes to striped bass regulations. That was a good thing for the Delta. The bass fish industry provides millions of dollars to the Delta local economies. Bass have co-existed with the salmon for over 100 years.

Unfortunately, that doesn’t seem to mean anything to the DWR/State. They are still listing projects to remove the bass under their list of “Conservation Measures”.

Seven species of fish in the Delta are listed as threatened or endangered, including Delta smelt, salmon, and steelhead. Although the ultimate cause of decline in these species is over-exporting water to send to the Central Valley, there is a constant search for ways to increase their numbers without any water costs. Such was the case with the California Fish & Game proposal and in the end it was obvious the striped bass are not the issue. It’s the pumps.

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  1. The California WaterFix began as the Bay and Delta Conservation Plan (BDCP).
  2. The Delta Tunnels are an evolution of what was earlier proposed as the Peripheral Canal which was voted down in the ’80s yet the project was re-started in the 2000s.
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