MWD approves $59 million for Delta Tunnel planning despite massive opposition



By Dan Bacher | 

The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California Board of Directors voted to approve $59 million for funding Delta Tunnel planning on December 7, despite over three hours of testimony by Southern California water ratepayers, environmentalists and Tribal advocates against the funding.

Out of the 80 people who spoke at the meeting, the overwhelming majority, 60, spoke against the tunnel. Only 20 people, including representatives of water districts, spoke on behalf of the project.  

There were four options before the board: 1) pay for MWD’s portion & Kern County’s portion at $75 million; 2) pay for MWD’s portion at $59 million; 3) wait until the Integrated Resources Plan (IRP) is finished in April to vote, or option 4) stop the tunnel by not financing it. 

The board chose option 2, while opponents urged the board to vote for option 4 or to delay the decision.  

Sierra Club California, who organized hundreds of people to send letters to the board and whose representatives spoke against the funding, said the $59 million expenditure adds to the $50 million the board voted to spend on tunnel planning in April — all coming in the middle of a pandemic surge that is expected to further drag down California’s economy. 

The $59 million also follows rate increases imposed in April and a board decision to retain an ad valorem tax in August, according to the Club. 

Additionally, four years ago MWD spent $175 million to buy two Delta islands, amidst enormous enormous controversy, to clear the way for tunnel construction.

“No one on the board asked to pull it for discussion, and only one comment was made by a board member- to look into the comment about salt water barriers,” noted Caty Wagner, Southern California Water Organizer for Sierra Club California. 

The massive underground tunnel will divert massive quantities of water from the Sacramento River in the North Delta to the state and federal pumping facilities in the South Delta to facilitate the export of water to corporate agribusiness in the San Joaquin Valley and to Southern California water agencies.

Speakers opposing the tunnel ranged from Native American advocates, to scientists, to Delta residents, to Sierra Club members, to anglers, to Los Angeles residents and local water board members. They argued that construction of the tunnel would lead to the destruction of the San Francisco Bay-Delta ecosystem that West Coast salmon and other fish populations depend on for spawning and rearing — and make the Delta itself virtually unlivable.

Janice Glow said the Delta Conveyance Project “will cause destruction to an already endangered ecosystem. I recommend that you consult with the Native people of California about this project. They have been caring for the land and the water since time immemorial."

Sherri Norris of the California Indian Environmental Alliance pointed out that the state and MWD had conducted their analysis of the impacts of the project without the input of Indigenous Peoples. She said they had not analyzed the project’s impacts on cultural sites and traditional subsistence fishing that Tribes did for thousands of years.

“The tribes in the footprint area or the San Francisco Bay have not agreed to the project,” Norris testified.

Lydia Ponce of Idle No More pointed out that the tunnel funding was “against the Declaration of Human Rights - Tribal people have to consent. They do not. It is really a racist and white supremacist idea- I see it, I own it, I have more money- we need to switch our thinking. We don't have long. We need to fix it.”   

Regina Chichizola, co-director of Save California Salmon, discussed what a bad investment of money the tunnel is — and how the battle to stop the tunnel could become the next Standing Rock.

"Not only is this a bad investment for Southern California, but it's a bad investment for the entire state. Southern CA needs to figure out how to become more self-reliant,” said Chichizola. “There's going to be legal costs and there's going to be political costs. Because people in my region don't have internet, they might not be able to call, but we will fight. This will be the next Standing Rock.” 

Dr. Evelyn Alvarez, a professor. at Cal State LA, raised concerns about the impacts the Delta tunnel will have on communities that are already suffering from pollution.

"I'm concerned about the disproportionate impact on Stockton and their already suppressed air quality and economy,” Alvarez stated.

Layne Fajeau, a student and Delta activist, described how the tunnel would make Stockton’s problem with air pollution even worse.

“Stockton’s air quality is already in the top 5% worst air quality in the country,” Fakjeau said. “As toxic algae dries, it makes people sick. We have one of the highest amounts of BIPOC. People and businesses in California need water, but we're asking you to instead work together to demand that DWR find non-tunnel alternatives. The Delta tunnel is a 19th-century solution to a 21st-century problem." 

Others criticized the “science” justifying the construction of the Delta Tunnel. Deirdre Des Jardins, Director of California Water Research, accused the MWD Board for using “obsolete” science in accounting for the impact of sea-level rise on the project. In her comments, she stated:

“The preliminary benefits analysis provided to the MWD Board for this vote uses a value of 55 inches for “extreme” sea-level rise.  This is the same obsolete value for extreme sea-level rise used in the failed WaterFix project. Current estimates of extreme sea-level rise are 2 meters to 10 feet by 2100.

“The MWD Board needs to ensure that Best Available Science is used for all project approvals, including this one. The Board should request that the Delta Conveyance Design and Construction Authority analyze the performance of the proposed North Delta Intake locations with 2 meters to 10 feet of sea level rise, so that the Board can assess the risks of future salinity intrusion at the North Delta intakes.

“Until this information is provided, there is no support for the assertion that this is a climate adaptation project.”  

Theresa Acero, a local water ratepayer, pointed out how the construction of the Delta Tunnel water would drive up water rates.

 "I don't want to see my water bill keep going up,” said Acero. “This is a crazy, crazy idea. The cost of this thing will be $50-60 billion, it's a crazy way to spend money. Please vote on Option #4) No funding for the Delta tunnel."  

Sarah P Hueso, environmental advocate and educator, concluded, "This project is not going to benefit us. It's going to benefit the rich agricultural tycoons like the Resnicks. I urge you to vote NO on funding this project."  

In my comments before the Metropolitan Water District Board, I cited the alarming collapse of Delta fish species as a key reason to not fund the Delta Tunnel. The California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) Oct. 2020 midwater trawl found ZERO Delta smelt, longfin smelt and splittail: https://t.co/apOls7cEsY?amp=1

I also asked the board members to show me a single example in U.S. or world history where a diversion project that takes more water out of a river or estuary has resulted in the restoration of that river or estuary. To date, not one MWD board member, DWR official, Governor or other tunnel advocate has been able to answer this question. 

Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla, Executive Director of Restore the Delta, said the tunnel will reduce water flows and devastate the environment of the already-fragile San Francisco Bay-Delta. 

She  said the tunnel will “hurt salmon and other fish, bird and wildlife populations, and reduce the food source to whales and other marine mammals in the Pacific Ocean. Construction pollution and increasing algal blooms will devastate the Delta’s air quality and already depressed local economy. It will also negatively impact Indigenous communities in Northern California.”   

After the meeting, Barrigan-Parrilla blasted the board for their pro-tunnel vote in a statement.

“First, throwing good money after bad money does not change the end result. GM Kightlinger and Chair Gray did a good job muddying up the waters with four options. When the vote was a yes/no, they did not have 50 percent of the vote. 

“Met ignored the outcry from the entire state, including their own ratepayers during a pandemic. Thousands of people made important and thorough written comments and dozens of verbal comments that MWD General Manager Kightlinger dismissed as repetitive. This follows his pattern of being dismissive of what the public expects from water district management, and a refusal to admit the level of research and depth that constituted a good majority of these comments. 

“From a Delta perspective, they do not have a plan to save the Delta from flood threat, and the tunnel will worsen water quality with the Delta.”

Kathryn Phillips, Director of Sierra Club California, also condemned the vote in a statement: 

“The MWD board members failed all Californians today. They essentially committed even more precious dollars to a project that won’t provide new water, doesn’t take into account climate change, will create an ecosystem collapse, and will saddle Southern California ratepayers with higher costs for water that won’t get delivered. 

“Irresponsible is one adjective for this vote. 

“Fortunately, this huge investment is not the end of the story. The board will have more chances in coming months and years to reconsider its commitment to the tunnel boondoggle. 

“Then, we hope, the board will abandon the tunnel and focus instead on developing local and regional water sources that provide good local and regional jobs and reliable supplies.”  

If it is ever built, the tunnel will cost $16-40 billion — and as much as 60 percent of that cost will be borne by MWD.

It is clear from the lack of board discussion before the vote that the MWD board members and had already made up their minds on the decision and did not consider the comments of the 60 water ratepayers and other Californians that spoke out against the tunnel funding.

If the Delta Tunnel is built, the project will hasten the extinction of Sacramento River spring and fall-run Chinook salmon, Central Valley steelhead, Delta and long fin smelt and other fish species. The project’s construction would also imperil the salmon and steelhead populations on the Trinity and Klamath rivers, fish that are an integral part of the culture and livelihood of the Yurok, Karuk and Hoopa Valley tribes.





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