Environmental groups slam final Delta Tunnel EIR as California fish populations collapse

By Dan Bacher | 

SACRAMENTO – As California’s salmon and other fish populations struggle to survive in the worst ecological crisis in the state’s history, the California Department of Water Resources (DWR) today released a final Environmental Impact Report (EIR) for Governor Gavin Newsom’s proposed Delta Conveyance Project (Delta Tunnel). 

DWR also conducted a rushed virtual media briefing this morning featuring Natural Resources Secretary Wade Crowfoot, Department of Water Resources Director Karla Nemeth and Carrie Buckman, the project’s environmental program manager, on the EIR’s release. 

The Delta Conveyance is a 45 mile-long tunnel that would divert water from the Sacramento River near Hood underneath the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, denying critical freshwater flows to the Delta and San Francisco Bay, in order to supply corporate agribusiness in the San Joaquin Valley and Southern California water agencies.

The Delta Conveyance project would divert up to 6,000 cubic feet of water per second (cfs). The project is estimated to cost between $16-40 billion and won’t be completed until at least 2040.

DWR said it is releasing the Final EIR to public agencies prior to certification per CEQA requirements. While CEQA does not require—and DWR is not providing—a public comment period on a Final EIR, it does require DWR to send its proposed responses at least 10 days prior to a decision on certification of the EIR.

The Final EIR is available online at www.deltaconveyanceproject.com/planning-processes/california-environmental-quality-act/final-eir/final-eir-document.

Newsom portrays Delta Tunnel as a ‘climate project’

Governor Gavin Newsom today reaffirmed his enthusiastic support for the redesigned Delta Conveyance Project proposal, claiming “how critical the project is to protect millions of people’s water access against the threats of climate change.” 

Since day one, the Governor pledged to “right-size this project to one tunnel and embrace an all-of-the-above approach to protecting California’s water access,” according to a statement from the Governor’s Office.

Newsom said California is expected to “lose 10% of its water supply due to hotter and drier conditions, threatening the water supply for millions of Californians. Extreme weather whiplash will result in more intense swings between droughts and floods – California’s 60-year-old water infrastructure is not built for these climate impacts.”

He said that during January’s atmospheric rivers, the Delta Conveyance Project, if built, could have captured enough water for 2.3 million people’s yearly usage 

The Governor also alleged the Delta Conveyance Project would yield about 500,000 acre-feet of water per year, enough for about 5.2 million people — and “slow the decline” in State Water Project supplies by increasing the capture of high flows during short bursts of precipitation.


 “Climate change is threatening our access to clean drinking water, diminishing future supplies for millions of Californians – doing nothing is not an option,” Newsom gushed. “After the three driest years on record, we didn’t have the infrastructure to fully take advantage of an exceptionally wet year, which will become more and more critical as our weather whiplashes between extremes.”

“This proposed project is essential to updating our water system for millions of Californians. This new approach, redesigned following community and environmental input, is how we can build a California of the future,” Newsom claimed.

However, environmental justice and conservation group representatives weren't impressed by Newsom’s pitch for the construction of the tunnel — and don’t believe building an environmentally devastating public works project like the tunnel is “how we can build a California for the future.”

The San Francisco Baykeeper, Save California Salmon, Restore the Delta and California Water Research quickly responded to the release of the EIR, slamming the project for accelerating the extreme crisis that Bay-Delta fish populations are already in because of too many water diversions and too much water pollution.

Baykeeper: Delta Tunnel would doom salmon, sturgeon, steelhead and smelt

Jon Rosenfield, Senior Scientist for the San Francisco Baykeeper, said the new water diversion would doom salmon, sturgeon, steelhead and smelt in California: 

“Governor Newsom’s multi-billion dollar Delta tunnel will divert excessive amounts of water from the Bay, and make matters worse for the fish and communities that depend on this ecosystem. The science clearly demonstrates that fish need increased river flows to survive, but state agencies are ignoring it. 

“California diverts more than half of the water flowing through Central Valley rivers to serve industrial agriculture and big cities. Because of excessive water diversions, the list of fish native to San Francisco Bay and its watershed that are verging on extinction continues to grow, and our fisheries are increasingly shut down. 

“California can protect San Francisco Bay and its watershed, while still providing enough water for agriculture and cities to thrive. Instead, Newsom is continuing his campaign to divert yet more water, needlessly sacrificing California’s native fish, valuable fisheries, water quality, and the communities that depend on them. 

“Chinook salmon, steelhead, longfin smelt and other fish that have thrived here for millenia cannot survive the Newsom administration’s assault on San Francisco Bay and its watershed. White Sturgeon, the Bay’s ultimate survivors, might not survive into the next generation because of neglect from state agencies that are supposed to protect our Bay and its fishes.” 

In January, Baykeeper and allied fishing and conservation organizations filed extensive comments documenting major flaws with the latest iteration of the Delta tunnel. 

“The state’s analysis and conclusions regarding impacts to native fish and Delta water quality failed to use the best available science, and misled the public about the likely harms arising from increased water diversions. The Final EIR failed to address those concerns,” the Baykeeper argued.

Save California Salmon: Tunnel and Sites Reservoir are connected water grabs

Save California Salmon also blasted the release of the Delta Tunnel EIR, describing the tunnel and the Sites Reservoir project as “connected water grabs.”  

“The fact that the Delta Conveyance Project Final Environmental Impact Report (EIR) was released just weeks after approval of the plan to build the privately owned, 1.5 million acre-feet Sites Reservoir, demonstrates that both projects are connected water grabs that will allow Northern California’s rivers and water to be drained for water brokers,” explained Kasil Willie from Save California Salmon. “Thousands of residents from North state communities who depend on the Bay-Delta and connected rivers, including Tribal members, fishermen, and recreational interests, have fought these projects.”

“Only water brokers and corporate interests supported them. Governor Newsom is selling us, and California’s environment, out to those who seek to privatize California’s rivers all the while claiming to be an environmental leader,” she concluded.

Restore the Delta: another failure of CA to imagine alternative approaches

Restore the Delta (RTD) slammed the latest iteration of the Delta Tunnel Project, noting that Newsom’s claim that the tunnel is now a climate project is “based on incomplete data and faulty analysis.”    

“Governor Newsom’s proposed Delta Tunnel, as outlined in this new EIR, is another failure of state water officials to imagine alternative approaches in a climate-impacted California,” said Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla, executive director, Restore the Delta. “This is sadly just another Zombie version of the Peripheral Canal idea that was rejected by California votersway back in 1982. And DWR seems to have learned nothing since California Governor Brown’s Twin Tunnel (WaterFix) died in 2019.”

“What is new is the claim that Newsom’s Tunnel is a climate project. But that argument is built on incomplete data and faulty analysis. The big pipe engineering solutions of the last century are no longer the way forward in California water’s climate-changed reality. We need more underground storage in agricultural regions and more regional stormwater collection and water recycling in our cities. The new Delta Tunnel plan was out of date for climate change science when it was released in July 2022. If completed in 2040 it will be obsolete then too,” she continued.

“Meanwhile, California will have spent billions on a project the state will be unable to use as Delta water levels rise or when fish need that water for survival during drought years,” Barrigan-Parrilla stated. “Instead, we should invest in the resilience projects that reduce reliance on water exports from the Delta. Southern California has been leading the way with projects that increase efficiency, water recycling, and increase local self-sufficiency.”  

After reviewing the prior Draft EIR, the group also identified the “profound impacts” that project would have on the besieged San Francisco Bay-Delta:

“Reviewing the prior Draft EIR, Restore the Delta identified 17 significant and unavoidable impacts of the proposed Tunnel project on the environment. Among these impacts will be loss of prime agricultural farmland, loss of local non-tribal cultural resources, transportation and air quality impacts, and painful loss of tribal cultural resources. Restore the Delta will be checking to see if any further mitigation has been developed for these identified impacts.

"The plan still largely ignores the project’s impacts on Delta urban environmental justice communities, and how construction will ruin small Delta farming towns, and the natural resources essential to the cultural and spiritual practices of Delta tribes. 

'It is clear from recent hearings at the State Water Resources Control Board that the voluntary agreements are DWR’s water operation plan during tunnel construction and for eventual operation of the tunnel. The tunnel, the voluntary agreements, and the Bay-Delta Plan are all modeled on historical data because the state is far behind in developing adequate climate water modeling for the future.

"Should the state eventually be forced to adopt a scientifically credible update to Delta outflow and other Delta water quality objectives in the Bay-Delta Plan, the new tunnel, costing many tens of billions of dollars, will sit empty in dry years for Delta flows and fish restoration as required by law. Eventually, aridification will render the tunnel dry for long periods of time.”  

The group also noted that in August of 2023, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issued a decision accepting for investigation a civil rights complaint filed by a coalition of tribes and environmental justice organizations over the California State Water Resources Control Board’s discriminatory mismanagement of water quality in California’s San Francisco Bay/Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta watershed. One of the remedies requested by the coalition was that no Delta Tunnel should proceed without a completed Delta Plan in place first. 

As Gary Mulcahy, Government Liaison, Winnemem Wintu Tribe, said, “It’s pretty bad when California Indians have to file a complaint with the Federal Government so that the State doesn’t violate our civil rights.”

Federal officials are watching the Tunnel planning closely because of this action, according to Restore the Delta. The State Water Board has still not completed the Bay-Delta Plan and hearings are continuing. 

California Water Research: DWR Fails to Address Accelerating Climate Change Impacts 

Deirdre Des Jardins of California Water Research said the Delta Conveyance Project, like its predecessor, the WaterFix Project, “fails to consider or address the risks from accelerating climate change impacts to Sacramento and San Joaquin River watersheds and the Delta.”

“California Water Research worked with a coalition of environmental and fishing groups, including the Sierra Club, the Center for Biological Diversity, Planning and Conservation League, Friends of the River, California Water Impact Network, Aqualliance, California Sportfishing Protection Alliance, and Restore the Delta to raise concerns about the urgent need to consider new best available science in planning the Delta Conveyance Project,” she pointed out.

The comment letter was titled, Re: Supplemental Comments on Draft EIR was sent to the Department of Water Resource on November 21, 2023. “The Department of Water Resources released the Final EIR without considering the concerns raised in the letter,” reported Des Jardins.

The comment letter drew on observations of accelerating climate change impacts and major new scientific research over the past year, including record land and ocean temperatures, accelerating melting of Polar Ice Caps and the weakening of the Ocean Conveyor Belt, Des Jardins noted. 

Key Concerns raised in the comment letter included: 

  1. Inadequate Climate Change Analysis for Delta Conveyance Project: “The comments raised concerns that if the EIR did not adequately analyze the risks of climate change in the Delta Conveyance Project's Draft EIR, the project could become a stranded asset.”
  2. Continuing Failure to Address Issues Found by State Auditor: “The comments cite the 2022 California State Auditor's report, which found that the Department of Water Resources systematically failed to adequately analyze climate change impacts on hydrologic condition.”
  3. Need for Revised Draft EIR: “The comments stressed the need for a revised Draft EIR that fully analyzed the effects of accelerating climate change on the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and its watersheds and considered non-tunnel alternatives.”

The Big Ag money behind the campaign to build the Delta Tunnel

To understand why Newsom is pushing the Delta Tunnel despite the opposition of Indian Tribes, fishing organizations, conservation groups, environmental justice organizations, Delta residents, Southern California water ratepayers, scientists, Delta Counties and the people of California, one only has to “follow the money.”

Many political insiders believe that Governor Newsom is expediting the construction of the Delta Tunnel, Sites Reservoir and other water and infrastructure projects in order to serve the wishes of his agribusiness, building industry, real estate and other Big Money donors.

For example, Stewart and Lynda Resnick, billionaire agribusiness tycoons, owners of the Wonderful Company and major promoters of the Delta Tunnel and increased water pumping from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, have donated a total of $431,600 to Governor Gavin Newsom since 2018, including $250,000 to Stop The Republican Recall Of Governor Newsom and $64,800 to Newsom For California Governor 2022.

Newsom received a total of $755,198 in donations from agribusiness in the 2018 election cycle, based on the data from www.followthemoney.org. That figure includes a combined $116,800 from Stewart and Lynda Resnick and $58,400 from E.J. Gallo, combined with $579,998 in the agriculture donations category.

But the donations to Newsom are just one small part of the donations that the Resnicks use to capture the regulatory apparatus in the so-called “green” and “progressive” state of California.

The Resnicks have contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to not only Newsom, but to Jerry Brown, Arnold Schwarzenegger and other governors in California. Their donations of many millions of dollars to candidates, campaigns and committees, as well as contributions of hundreds of millions of dollars to the University of California system and the arts through the Resnick Family Foundation, have bought them disproportionate influence on water and environmental policy in California.  

On May 4, 2022, the Resnicks joined Caltech president Thomas F. Rosenbaum, Newsom, Pasadena mayor Victor Gordo, and other guests and members of the Caltech community on May 4 to break ground on the “Resnick Sustainability Center” at Caltech. A press release from Caltech claimed “the 79,500-square-foot project, which will grace the western edge of the Caltech campus, was made possible by a $750 million pledge from the Resnicks to Caltech.” 

The gift, made in 2019, is the largest in the Institute’s history and among the largest ever for environmental sustainability research. It

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