Lawsuit challenges California's approval of $16 billion to fund Delta Tunnel without CEQA review




By Dan Bacher |

UPDATED 1:30 p.m.

SACRAMENTO - In the latest battle in California Water Wars during the midst of an unprecedented pandemic, five environmental groups sued the California Department of Water Resources (DWR) today in Sacramento Superior Court for adopting a resolution approving the issuance of the Delta Program Revenue Bonds to build the controversial Delta Tunnel.

The coalition filing the lawsuit today includes Restore the Delta, Sierra Club California, the Center for Biological Diversity, and the Planning and Conservation League and Friends of Stone Lakes National Wildlife Refuge. The lawsuit challenges DWR’s approval of Delta tunnel funding without first conducting any review under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).

“The bonds could raise $16 billion, or more, for planning and building the massive Delta tunnel project, which would divert billions of gallons of water from the environmentally sensitive San Joaquin Delta and convey it south,” according to a press release from the Center for Biological Diversity and Sierra Club California.  “The project is the Newsom administration’s proposed replacement for the twin-tunnel California WaterFix project.


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The proposed project would divert large quantities of Sacramento River water from the North Delta before it flows through the estuary to facilitate the export of water from Northern California to corporate agribusiness interests in the San Joaquin Valley and Southern California.

A coalition of Indian Tribes, conservation groups, fishing organizations, Delta residents, Northern California cities, counties and elected officials, environmental justice advocates and Southern California ratepayers oppose the tunnel because it would hasten the extinction of Central Valley steelhead, Sacramento River spring and winter Chinook, Delta and long fin smelt, green sturgeon and other imperiled fish and bird populations and destroy West Coast fisheries.

“The single tunnel project would have devastating consequences for the Delta,” said Bob Wright, an attorney for the Sierra Club. “The state can’t afford to continue throwing money away on this unsustainable pipe dream.”

The Newsom administration announced the planning process for the single-tunnel version of the Delta tunnel project in January 2020 after abandoning the twin-tunnel proposal in 2019.

“It’s outrageous that California officials would commit funds for this massively harmful water tunnel without public engagement or environmental review,” said John Buse, senior counsel at the Center for Biological Diversity. “This boondoggle will destroy the Delta ecosystem in a desperate attempt to continue unsustainable water use in Central and Southern California.”

Tunnel opponents say the tunnel would wreak “ecological and economic havoc” by  significantly decreasing the fresh water flowing through the Delta, harming farming communities, native fish and the ecosystem’s overall health.

The environmental groups also filed an answer to the Department’s complaint for validation, an action that seeks to confirm the legality of the bond issuance.

"DWR put the cart before the horse,” said Tim Stroshane, Policy Analyst for Restore the Delta, in a statement. “There is no final Delta tunnel plan, no environmental impact report, no permit from the State Water Resources Control Board, and no Federal permits. They don't even have a Federal partner for the project. They don't know which route the tunnel will be built through, and they do not have a finalized community mitigation plan. Worse, they don't know how much water will be available to move through the tunnel.”

"We were promised a proper process this time around for planning with the single tunnel. But this premature move to secure unlimited funding during the COVID-19 pandemic is just more of the same old shenanigans we have seen over the years from the Department of Water Resources in regard to the tunnel,” noted Stroshane.

“The tunnel is a project that Californians continue to reject, including most recently Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, because it is too costly and produces no new water. With drought looming once again, climate change caused fires, and financially strapped municipal water districts throughout the state, the tunnel makes less sense than ever,” Stroshane concluded.    

In response to the lawsuit, Ryan Endean, Assistant Deputy Director, Public Affairs Office, of the California Department of Water Resources (DWR), issued the following statement:

“The Department of Water Resources’ validation lawsuit and the bond resolutions adopted are for the purpose of confirming the Department’s legal authority to authorize and issue bonds. Confirmation of the Department's authority to issue bonds does not commit the department to any particular course of action. The Department retains its full discretion to approve or reject a project following CEQA review.” 

In other Delta Tunnel news, Doug Obegi, an attorney from NRDC explains that in August, DWR attempted to issue itself a Blank Check for a Delta Tunnel project, by effectively filing a lawsuit against every Californian in order to validate a bond or government financing mechanism for all time. This would open a funding stream for the agency despite having no completed environmental analysis.

“…if DWR wins the lawsuit, then no person in California could ever file a lawsuit challenging those bonds or financing mechanisms to repay those bonds. While the lawsuit applies to everyone in California, everyone who lives in the service area of the State Water Project are the most likely to get stuck with the bill for this project,” said Obegi.








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