California budget deal delivers major setback to Delta water tunnel project

The Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta on June 22, 2023.
Photo by Miguel Gutierrez Jr., CalMatters. | 

By Dan Walters | 

It’s gone by several names: Peripheral Canal, Water Fix and Delta Conveyance.

Its design has changed several times, from a canal to twin tunnels and most recently a single tunnel.

However, its purpose has been unchanged for seven decades – bypassing the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta as water is moved from Northern California to San Joaquin Valley farms and Southern California homes.

Likewise, the fierce disagreement over whether it would rescue the Delta from environmental deterioration, as its advocates contend, or degrade it even further, as opponents maintain, has also remained unchanged.

This week, a new chapter in the project’s long and torturous history was written when legislators thwarted Gov. Gavin Newsom’s effort to partially exempt it, along with other major public works projects, from the California Environmental Quality Act.

To complete a many faceted deal on the state budget, Newsom was compelled to remove the project, a single tunnel currently dubbed Delta Conveyance by the Department of Water Resources, from his list of projects to be given a fast track through CEQA’s provisions.

It was a clear win for the tunnel’s opponents. “However, this play by the governor makes it clear that he and DWR will seek to change any rules to move the Delta tunnel forward while excluding the people of the region,” Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla, executive director of Restore the Delta, said in a statement. “It is time for him and DWR to drop the project, that nobody supports, and to get busy on meaningful reforms and projects to restore the Delta and secure California’s water future.”

It was an equally clear setback for the coalition of agricultural and municipal water agencies, including Southern California’s Metropolitan Water District, that had long sought the Delta bypass to make water deliveries from the north more reliable.

Over the decades of having water pumped out of the Delta and into federal and state canals for delivery southward, the West Coast’s largest estuary has been degraded by reduced inflows of freshwater from upstream agricultural diversions and internal flow disturbances from export pumping.

It’s widely accepted that salmon and other fish species have been diminished by changes in the Delta’s natural plumbing. Project advocates say bypassing the Delta, along with reducing upstream diversions, would improve its health. But opponents say a bypass would mean even less water flowing through its channels and sloughs, thus damaging it even more.

The argument has proceeded along those lines for decades, sometimes in the Legislature, sometimes at the ballot, and often in regulatory bodies such as the Water Resources Control Board, which has for years been considering tighter Delta water quality standards.

California’s only two-time governor, Jerry Brown, confronted the issue twice, once in the form of a Peripheral Canal during his first stint in the 1970s and 1980s, and later as twin tunnels after returning to the governorship in 2011. He tried – and failed – to gain approval both times, including losing a 1982 referendum after getting legislative authorization for the canal.

When Newsom succeeded Brown in 2019, he emulated King Solomon, cut the project in half to a single tunnel and restarted the complex process of gaining financial and environmental clearance. His effort to include it in the list of projects to receive streamlined CEQA treatment was an indirect admission that opponents could block it indefinitely otherwise.

This week’s rejection leaves the tunnel in political, legal and bureaucratic limbo – neither dead nor alive – and will indirectly ramp up pressure from the project’s opponents on the water board to proceed with tighter Delta water quality standards.

California’s water wars are a political perpetual motion machine.

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