Trump administration approves permit to build Jerry Brown's Delta Tunnels

By Dan Bacher | June 26, 2017 |

As I predicted on election night, the President Donald Trump and Governor Jerry Brown administrations have apparently made a deal to fast-track Brown’s legacy project, the Delta Tunnels, considered by opponents to be the most environmentally destructive public works project in California history.

The Trump administration released a no-jeopardy finding on the biological assessment to build the tunnels, claiming that the California WaterFix will not jeopardize threatened or endangered species or adversely modify their critical habitat. The biological opinion is available here: 

On a teleconference call for reporters today, state and federal officials hailed the release of the controversial document as a “milestone” in the Brown administration’s campaign to build the giant twin tunnels under the Delta. 

The fish and water agency officials on the call included  Paul Souza, Pacific Southwest Regional Director for US FWS; Barry Thom, West Coast Regional Administrator for NOAA Fisheries; David Murillo, Regional Director for Bureau of Reclamation Mid-Pacific Region; and Michelle Banonis, Assistant Chief Deputy Director at the California Department of Water Resources. 

"Our assessment of Water Fix is now final," said Souza. “It was reviewed in detail by a panel of independent scientists, and represents the culmination of a tremendous effort by our own scientists.  I really want to acknowledge all of the work that our team put into this effort. We have concluded that Water Fix will not jeopardize threatened or endangered species or adversely modify their critical habitat. 

“We have documented some impacts from construction; and we have worked with the Department of Water Resources and the Bureau of Reclamation to develop a plan to restore habitat, to minimize and mitigate those impact,” Souza said. 

“Today does mark a milestone in the completion of our biological opinions, but it’s important to recognize that opinions really are technical assessments of projects themselves, and the actual decision to move forward with California Water Fix will be made at some future time by the state of California and the Bureau of Reclamation,” Souza concluded.  

Showing the growing collaboration between the Brown and Trump administrations on water and other environmental issues, Michelle Banonis stated, “On behalf of the California Department of Water Resources, I would like to thank the US FWS and the NMFS for their significant efforts in putting together the biological opinion for California Water Fix. We feel this is a momentous step towards the future and we feel that this will help in the future in balancing between water and environmental resources in California." 

San Francisco Bay-Delta activists strongly disagreed with Banonis that the permit was "a momentous step toward the future" - and quickly denounced the attempt to “greenlight” the project. They said the “best available science” about endangered species who depend on a healthy Bay-Delta was not fully considered, and may have been politically manipulated. 

The biological opinion approves an “Incidental Take Permit” that would “give the project a permission to harm and even kill federally protected species in the building and operation of Governor Jerry Brown’s proposed Delta Tunnels,” also known as the California WaterFix, according to a news release from Restore the Delta (RTD). 

“The science in this decision was cherry-picked and not representative of the true scope of harm to endangered species who depend on a healthy San Francisco Bay-Delta estuary for their survival,” said Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla, Executive Director of Restore the Delta. “We are pursuing legal remedies with our coalition.”   

In April 2017, the findings of an Independent Review Panel found serious deficiencies in the Draft Biological Opinion. 

“The Independent Review Panel report suggested that the biological opinion had serious flaws and that the Delta Tunnels will be terrible for Delta fish—those that live here year-round as well as those just passing through on their way to and from the Pacific Ocean,” said Tim Stroshane, Policy Analyst for Restore the Delta. 

Yet the final decision by the Trump’s NOAA found “No Significant Impact” (FONSI), according to Stroshane. This is exactly the opposite from the conclusion made by the Independent Review Panel.  

Stroshane said NOAA’s decision of “no jeopardy" comes despite the 12 percent reduction in salmon smolt due to reduced water flows through the Delta. Another 7 percent of salmon smolt are killed by faulty fish screens. Other threatened and endangered species continue to decline as more water is taken out of the Delta. 

“What agencies have marketed as ‘adaptive management’ is basically trial and error management. They are saying, ‘Trust us to build it, we will figure out how to fix the harms we cause later.’ That just isn’t acceptable,” explained Stroshane. 

The Delta Tunnels is based on the unscientific assumption that diverting more water from the Sacramento River so it doesn't flow through the estuary will somehow restore the Delta. I'm not aware of any project in U.S. or world history where diverting more water out of a river or estuary has resulted in the restoration of that river or estuary. 

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