It's Here: Department of Water Resources Releases Draft EIR of Embattled Delta Tunnel Project



By Dan Bacher | 

The California Department of Water Resources (DWR) has released the Draft Environmental Impact Report (EIR) for the embattled Delta Tunnel, beginning the 90 day public comment period from July 27-October 27 for what environmental advocates describe as an “environmentally destructive project.” 

According to project opponents, different versions of this same gigantic and wasteful public works project — the Peripheral Canal, the Bay Delta Conservation Plan, the California Water Fix and now the single Delta Conveyance — have cast a dark, toxic shadow over California water policy since it was first decisively rejected by California voters in November 1982 as the Peripheral Canal.

While tunnel advocates claim the tunnel will protect the reliability of water transport infrastructure in the Delta, address the impacts of sea level rise and climate, and improve aquatic conditions in the Delta, opponents say the project will do none of these things and will instead hasten the extinction of Sacramento River winter and spring-run Chinook salmon, Central Valley steelhead, Delta and longfin smelt, green sturgeon and other species while indebting Californians for many generations to come.

Project critics, including Tribes, conservationists, environmental justice advocates, anglers and Delta farmers, also have little faith the Draft EIR will address any of the questions and concerns they raised repeatedly during their work with the Stakeholder Engagement Committee for the Design Construction Authority (DCA) during that two-year tunnel planning process.

The Draft EIR was prepared by DWR as the lead agency to comply with the requirements of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) by evaluating a range of alternatives to the proposed project and disclosing potential environmental effects of the proposed project and alternatives, and associated mitigation measures for potentially significant impacts, according to a announcement from DWR.

The agency claimed that “no decisions will be made” until the conclusion of the environmental review process, after consideration of public comments submitted on the Draft EIR and issuing a Final EIR. At that time, DWR will determine whether to approve the proposed project, an alternative or no project. 

“The purpose of the proposed Delta Conveyance Project is to upgrade the aging State Water Project (SWP) water transport infrastructure in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta (Delta) to protect the reliability of this important water supply. In pursuing this project, DWR seeks to address the effects of sea level rise and climate change, minimize water supply disruption caused by an earthquake and provide operational flexibility to improve aquatic conditions in the Delta,” DWR said in its announcement. 

“Two out of three Californians rely on the State Water Project for all or part of their water supply,” said DWR Director Karla Nemeth in a subsequent press release. “Modernizing this infrastructure is essential to adapting to a future that includes more frequent extremes of drought and flood, and greater water instability.”

She claimed, “If the project had been operational during the big storms in October and December of 2021, DWR could have captured and moved about 236,000 acre-feet of water. That is enough for about 2.5 million people for a year. If approved after completion of the environmental review process, the project will also help California manage through periods of severe drought like the one the state is experiencing now.”

Nemeth also claimed that the proposed project has been “refined, redesigned and rerouted” as a result of public input and the Governor’s 2019 direction.

“We took a fresh look at everything. Changing from two tunnels to one opened the door to many creative design and engineering innovations,” she said.

In response to the release of the EIR, the Sierra Club said it is ”working hard to review the document and begin the process of commenting.”  The group said it will host a workshop in the next couple of weeks to assist folks and answer any questions about the comment process.   

The group noted that the tunnel’s construction would “significantly harm the important biodiversity of the Bay-Delta region, and cost California taxpayers between $16-40 billion.” 

Sierra Club California said it has opposed the Delta tunnel and previous iterations. “The project would cost between $16-40 billion, with 65% of the tab picked up by Southern Californians living in the Metropolitan Water District, and cause mass destruction for Delta communities and ecosystems during both construction and operation,” the group stated.

“Sierra Club California strongly believes this flawed project is incredibly wasteful. Climate change continues to impact the state’s hydrology, and there is no certainty as to the amount of water that will be available for the project when it’s completed,” said Brandon Dawson, Director of Sierra Club California, in a statement regarding the issuing of the DEIR. “We will be closely examining the DEIR alongside our environmental partners for new information on the anticipated impacts of the project for frontline communities, Tribes, and the vital ecosystem of the Bay-Delta. 

“We encourage the Newsom administration to fully shift the DWR’s attention to sustainable water management efforts that are environmentally beneficial and will work to build regional resilience, including conservation, efficiency, recycling, and stormwater capture,” he added.

Restore the Delta’s executive director, Barbara-Barrigan Parrilla, also criticized the release of the Delta Tunnel DEIR in a statement:

“This plan is so massive, it will be delivered to us on thumb-drive. A full review of this mountain of paper is simply not possible for Delta communities, environmental justice groups, or Northern California tribes in just 90-days.

“As we read, we will be looking for answers to the questions we raised during our work with the Stakeholder Engagement Committee for the Design Construction Authority during that two-year tunnel planning process. Delta communities raised concerns about water quality, salinity intrusion, pollution mitigation, and significant air pollution impacts resulting from construction and operation of the project. DWR needs to speak frankly about the sacrifices expected of the people of the Delta for this project to advance. As the state has only recently begun to hold workshops on salinity intrusion into the Delta, which is also part of climate change planning, there is no framework for what a just transition for the Delta would entail. There is also no state standard for dealing with harmful algal blooms, another serious water and air quality problem that will worsen with construction and operation of the tunnel.

“With significant water shortages on the horizon, it is mind boggling that the Delta Conveyance Project is the first priority of the Department of Water Resources and the Newsom Administration. “Before we build a tunnel, DWR and the State Water Resources Control Board must do the hard work of bringing supply and demand into balance. We are too close to a water crisis to allow all energies to be directed toward what will become a mostly dry, expensive, and frequently empty tunnel, financed by water ratepayers and California taxpayers. Would a myriad of localized water projects better prepare California’s climate-changed water system?

“To decide that, we need an emergency, comprehensive statewide plan for dealing with aridification – the long-term change to our climate we are all witnessing. Second, the State must complete and implement both phases of the Bay-Delta Plan so we have baseline numbers about what is required to keep the largest estuary on the West Coast alive. Last, there must be a Marshall Plan (including financing) to build out the myriad of localized water projects to protect and increase water supplies throughout the state.”

As I’ve said many times, the Delta Tunnel is a project based on the illogical concept that diverting more water out of the Sacramento River and Delta Estuary will somehow provide for the “coequal goals” of water supply and ecosystem restoration.

In fact, all of the available science reveals that the Delta Tunnel will in fact hasten the extinction of Delta and longfin smelt, Sacramento winter run and spring Chinook salmon, Central Valley steelhead, green sturgeon and other fish species.

I don’t know of any water diversion project in world or U.S. history where taking more water out of a river or estuary has restored that river or estuary. The Delta Tunnel project, if ever constructed, would be no different. 

You can now visit the Draft EIR website to access the document and accompanying informational resources and learn more about the proposed project and the public review process, including public hearing details and commenting opportunities. 

Here are the details from DWR about the DEIR’s public comment period:  

What: Public comment period for the Delta Conveyance Project Draft EIR  

When: Comment period: July 27, 2022 - October 27, 2022, by 5:00 p.m. 
Where:

  • Review Onlinewww.deltaconveyanceproject.com
  • Review In-Person: A digital copy of the Draft EIR is available at the following locations:
    • DWR Office: 3500 Industrial Blvd., Room 117, West Sacramento, CA 95691
    • Libraries: A full list of libraries across the state where the public can access the Draft EIR can be found here

How:
Members of the public and other interested parties can submit comments on the Draft EIR in the following ways:

  • Email: deltaconveyancecomments@water.ca.gov  
  • Online: www.deltaconveyanceproject.com
  • U.S. Mail: CA Department of Water Resources, Attn: Delta Conveyance Office, P.O. Box 942836, Sacramento, CA 94236-0001
  • Virtual Public Hearing: Provide verbal public comment at a virtual public hearing
    • Tuesday, September 13, 2022, 9:00 a.m. to 11:00 a.m.
    • Thursday, September 22, 2022, 12:00 p.m. to 2:00 p.m.
    • Wednesday, September 28, 2022, 5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.

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