Governor Newsom promotes Delta Tunnel, Sites Reservoir as key components of updated California Water Plan

Governor Newsom at April Snow Survey at Phillips Station. Photo courtesy of DWR. |

By Dan Bacher | 

Philipps Station, CA — At a press event to celebrate the above average snowpack survey in the Sierra Nevada on April 2, Governor Gavin Newsom unveiled the state’s controversial updated California Water Plan to supposedly “protect California’s water supplies from the climate crisis” while boosting the state’s ability to capture and store water for when dry conditions return. 

Among the key components of the plan are the Delta Conveyance Project, Sites Reservoir and the voluntary agreements, anti-environmental schemes that aim to deliver more Delta water to Big Ag oligarchs like Stewart and Lyda Resnick in Kern County at the expense of salmon populations moving closer and closer to extinction.

“In the past few years alone, we’ve gone from extreme drought to some of the most intense rain and snow seasons on record – showcasing the need for us to constantly adapt to how we manage our water supplies,” said Newsom. “The water plans and strategies we’re implementing are each targeted components of our overall effort to deliver clean water to Californians by capturing, storing, and conserving more water throughout the state. This plan is a critical component of that effort.”

The Governor highlighted several examples of what California has implemented since the last Water Plan, including:

  • “creating a Flood-Managed Aquifer Recharge program, capturing and spreading flood flows to recharge aquifers – boosting the state’s water capture and storage abilities.
  • Integrating climate science and research to help vulnerable communities defend against floods and drought.” 

California’s other actions to “boost water supplies” cited by Newsom include:

  • Nearly $9 billion in water investments over the last three years.  
  • Expanded water supply and storage through groundwater recharge and other projects by over 400 billion gallons.
  • Streamlining projects and limiting litigation delays to spur new and improved water infrastructure. 

However, the Governor said “more is needed to expand California’s water supplies.” And of course, that meant promoting his pet projects — the Delta Tunnel and Sites Reservoir.

“During this year’s storms alone, the Delta Conveyance Project could’ve captured enough water to supply 9.4 million people; the streamlined Sites Reservoir Project could hold enough water for 3 million households’ yearly usage,” Newsom claimed.  

“The Delta Conveyance is foundational, it’s critical, if we’re going to address the issue of climate change. It is a climate project. It is one of the most important projects this state can advance,” Newsom concluded.  

Newsom said the water plan is directly tied into today’s snow survey, a key indicator of expected runoff that this plan helps both state and local governments capture and store. It recorded 64 inches of snow depth and a snow water equivalent of 27.5 inches, which is 113 percent of average for this location and above average overall. 

DWR Director Karla Nemeth also gushed about the California Water Plan Update.

“With climate change posing uncertain challenges, California Water Plan Update 2023 highlights the importance of innovation and investments in the state's watersheds, water systems, and frontline communities,” said Nemeth. “This plan helps build a future where all Californians can be more water resilient and how we can all take action to adapt our communities to thrive in more extreme weather conditions.” 

Critics of Newsom’s Delta Tunnel, Sites Reservoir and other water policies said the final version of the California Water Plan asserts equity for “frontline communities,” yet ignores the negative impacts key projects will have on them.

In response, Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla, Executive Director of Restore the Delta, said, “Governor Newsom cannot claim to put water equity and frontline communities at the forefront of his plans while ignoring the catastrophic impact the tunnel will have on environmental justice communities that rely on the Delta for drinking water, food via fishing and farming, and recreation.”

“Dedicating a full chapter to tribal perspectives in the water plan is a start,” Barrigan-Parrilla said, “but the plan fails to protect tribal water rights for those who have stewarded Delta waterways and relied on the Delta for cultural, religious, and subsistence practices essential to tribal identity. We urge the governor to truly and adequately safeguard equity for frontline and tribal communities and prioritize the Bay-Delta Plan over boondoggle projects like the Delta tunnel.”

On January 22, a coalition of environmental and Tribal organizations took legal action in the Superior Court of California, County of Sacramento, against the California Department of Water Resources for violating the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) by finalizing the approval for Governor Newsom’s Delta Tunnel project in December 2023.

The groups filing the lawsuit against the Department of Water Resources included The Bay Institute, California Indian Environmental Alliance, Golden State Salmon Association, Restore the Delta, San Francisco Baykeeper, and the Shingle Springs Band of Miwok Indians. The groups are represented by Jason Flanders at Aqua Terra Aeris Law Group and by attorneys at San Francisco Baykeeper.

“The Delta Tunnel is one of the biggest salmon-killing projects in state history, and Governor Newsom has his hand directly on the spigot,” said Scott Artis, executive director of the Golden State Salmon Association. “We are witnessing the creation of the next endangered species: the salmon families across California and Oregon who rely on the health of our fishery for their living, their community, and their culture.”

“The governor is doing everything he can to divert water away from our rivers, fish, and people in a vain effort to appease an insatiable industrial agricultural thirst. The salmon industry is already suffering from the Newsom fishing shutdown. California salmon fishing was completely closed in 2023, and is likely to be closed in 2024, because the governor mismanaged our rivers during the drought,” he explained.

Background: salmon, steelhead and Delta Smelt continue on path to extinction

California salmon, steelhead and other fisheries are in their worst crisis ever as Governor Newsom forges ahead with the Delta Tunnel and Sites Reservoir projects. 

California salmon fishing was closed in 2023 and will be closed or severely limited this year also. On March 11, the Pacific Fishery Management Council released three recreational fishing alternatives for the Fort Bragg, San Francisco and Monterey Bay regions, including two extremely limited season options and one complete closure option. The Council will make their final decision on April 11.

The 2024 stock abundance forecast for Sacramento River Fall Chinook, often the most abundant stock in the ocean fishery, is only 213,600 adults. Meanwhile, abundance of Klamath River Fall Chinook is forecast at 180,700 adults. “These abundance forecasts are well below average,” according to the CDFW.

Endangered Sacramento River spring and winter-run Chinook also continue their march towards extinction. The spawning escapement of Sacramento River Spring Chinooks (SRSC) in 2023 totaled 1,479 fish (jacks and adults), with an estimated return of 106 to upper Sacramento River tributaries and the remaining 1,391 fish returning to the Feather River Hatchery.

The return to Butte Creek of just 100 fish was the lowest ever. In 2021, an estimated 19,773 out of the more than 21,580 fish total that returned to spawn in the Butte County stream perished before spawning

Nor did the winter run, listed under the state and federal Endangered Species Act, do well. Spawner escapement of endangered Sacramento River Winter Chinook (SRWC) in 2023 was estimated to be 2,447 adults and 54 jacks, according to PFMC data.

A group of us, including the late conservationist and Fish Sniffer magazine publisher Hal Bonslett, successfully pushed the state and federal governments to list the winter run under the state and federal Endangered Species Acts starting in 1990-91 because we were so alarmed that the fish population had crashed to 2,000 fish.

Then in 1992 the run declined to less than 200 fish. Even after Shasta Dam was built, the winter run escapement to the Sacramento River was 117,000 in 1969!

Now we are back to approximately the same low number of winter-run Chinooks that spurred us to push for the listing of the fish as endangered under state and federal law over 30 years ago.  

Even more chilling, for the sixth year in a row, zero Delta Smelt were collected in the California Department of Fish and Wildlife’s Fall Midwater Trawl (FMWT) Survey in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta from September through December 2023.

Once the most abundant species in the entire estuary, the Delta Smelt has declined to the point that it has become functionally extinct in the wild. The 2 to 3 inch fish, found only in the Delta, is an “indicator species” that shows the relative health of the San Francisco Bay/Delta ecosystem.

Meanwhile, the other pelagic species collected in the survey — striped bass, Longfin Smelt, Sacramento Splittail and threadfin shad — continued their dramatic decline since 1967 when the State Water Project went into effect. Only the American shad shows a less precipitous decline.

The graphs in the CDFW memo graphically illustrate how dramatic the declines in fish populations have been over the years:…  

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