'Happy Holidays' - Department of Water Resources approves fish-killing Delta Tunnel fiasco

The collapse of four runs of Chinook salmon on the Sacramento River and the virtual extinction of the Delta smelt, once the most abundant fish in the entire Delta, is occurring as the environmentally destructive Delta Tunnel is approved. The approval of the tunnel will only make the ecological disaster even worse. |

By Dan Bacher | 

Just in time for the Christmas Holidays and the Winter Solstice, the Gavin Newsom administration on December 21 officially approved the embattled Delta Tunnel project and published the project’s Notice of Determination (NOD), drawing outrage from conservation and environmental justice organizations.

“The Department of Water Resources (DWR) today approved the Delta Conveyance Project, a modernization of the infrastructure system that delivers water to millions of Californians,” DWR proclaimed in their press statement. “DWR has certified the Environmental Impact Report (EIR) and completed an extensive environmental review. DWR selected the “Bethany Reservoir Alignment” for further engineering, design and permitting.” 

The proposed underground tunnel would be 45 miles long and 36 feet in diameter. It would feature 2 new intakes on the Sacramento in the North Delta near Hood with a capacity of 3,000 cubic feet per second (cfs) for a total capacity of 6,000 cfs. A new pumping plant in the South Delta would connect the tunnel to the existing Bethany Reservoir on the California Aqueduct.

The state is expected to lose 10% of its water supply by 2040 due to hotter and drier conditions. DWR said the Delta Conveyance Project is “a key part of the California’s Water Resiliency Portfolio and Governor Newsom’s Water Supply Strategy.”

“Today marks another significant milestone in our efforts to modernize state water infrastructure and adapt to the challenges of changing precipitation patterns,” gushed Karla Nemeth, Director of the California Department of Water Resources. “As our recent white paper The Economy of the State Water Project shows, the State Water Project is one of the most affordable sources of water in California, and we need to help local water agencies in protecting both reliability and affordability for their ratepayers.” 

Two conservation groups, Save California Salmon and Restore the Delta, quickly responded to the project approval — and slammed the project as a “water grab” by corporations and water water brokers that won't benefit water ratepayers while at the same time killing off salmon and the Bay-Delta ecosystem.

 “This holiday season, Governor Newsom is giving corporations and water brokers everything they asked for, the North State’s rivers and Delta while leaving Tribes, fishermen, and the public high and dry,” stated Regina Chichizola for Save California Salmon. “The fact that the Delta Conveyance Project was approved just weeks after approval of the plan to build the privately owned, 1.5 million acre-feet Sites Reservoir, demonstrates the projects are interconnected water grabs. The Governor and resource agencies are selling us, and California’s environment, out to those who seek to privatize California’s rivers while claiming to be environmental leaders.”

Restore the Delta noted that the NOD is the administrative record requirement for a finalized document for a proposed project by the lead agency, in this case, the Department of Water Resources. 

The Department of Water Resources published the final Environmental Impact Report for the Delta Conveyance Projecton December 8, 2023.

“The publishing of the NOD begins the 30-day clock for the public to file litigation against the proposed Delta Conveyance Project Plan and Environmental Impact Report under the California Environmental Quality Act,” the group stated. “The Delta Conveyance Project still requires numerous other state and federal permits to advance and also requires the completion of documents under NEPA, federal environmental policy.”

Project opponents vowed to continue fighting the project through “all necessary processes,” including litigation, to stop the project from becoming reality.

“We and our broad coalition of partners will engage in all necessary processes, and when necessary, litigation, to stop the Delta Conveyance Project once and for all,” said Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla, Executive Director of Restore the Delta, in a statement. “Sadly, the Newsom Administration is continuing to waste public dollars and time advancing a project that Californians have rejected for decades and that will not solve our climate water challenge or protect the Bay-Delta estuary. We are disappointed in the Newsom Administration’s recycling of failed ideas from past generations.” 

“To this end, our attorneys at the Mills Legal Clinic at Stanford Law School sent a letter to US EPA on behalf of the Delta Tribal Environmental Coalition (Buena Vista Rancheria, Shingle Springs Band of Miwok Indians, Winnemem Wintu Tribe, Little Manila Rising, and Restore the Delta) reaffirming that our Title VI complaint, which has been accepted for investigation, and our petition or rulemaking for protective flow standards for the Delta must advance rapidly,” she said.

One of the primary requests for relief to the US EPA is that a completed Bay-Delta Plan must be set in place, with protective science-based standards for estuary health, before any tunnel or major infrastructure project advances, according to Barrigan-Parrilla.

“The Newsom Administration has the order of operations backwards. The Bay-Delta Plan, along with a state water inventory of supply and demand, must be completed before wasting money and more time on wasteful infrastructure planning,” she explained.

“We are confident that ultimately this project will die from its own bloated costs. Until then, we will continue to advance real solutions for California water management, like broadscale floodplain restoration in the Central Valley, water quality protections, and robust funding for river and Sierra wetland restoration, along with urban water resiliency projects,” Barrigan-Parrilla concluded.

After hearing about the approval of the tunnel by DWR, Bill Wells, Executive Director of the California Delta Chambers & Visitor's Bureau, asked, “How much new water does this project create? Where are some examples of a project like this that has not destroyed the existing waterway?”

He pointed out, “Some examples where other projects like this have been disasters are: Owen's Dry Lake, Mono Lake, Buena Vista Lake, Tulare Lake, Colorado River Delta, Tigris and Euphrates River Delta and Aral Sea.”  

The collapse of four runs of Chinook salmon on the Sacramento River and the virtual extinction of the Delta smelt, once the most abundant fish in the entire Delta, is now taking place as the Delta Tunnel is approved. The approval of the tunnel will only make the current ecological disaster even worse, as the EIR’s own documents reveal.

As more reactions to the approval come in, I will post them here. Meanwhile, below is the link to the official press statement from the Department of Water Resources: water.ca.gov/...

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