DWR Analysis Claims 'Benefits' of Delta Tunnel Will Outweigh Costs; Critics Strongly Disagree

By Dan Bacher | 

SACRAMENTO – The Department of Water Resources (DWR) today released a controversial benefit-cost analysis for the Delta Conveyance Project, AKA Delta Tunnel, that claims the embattled project would create billions of dollars in benefits for California communities.

The Delta Conveyance Project (DCP) will cost a total of $20.1 billion for a single tunnel, according to the analysis. “For every $1 spent, $2.20 in benefits would be generated,” DWR said.

DWR cited “reliable water supplies, climate change adaptation, earthquake preparedness and improved water quality” among the “benefits.”  

“The Delta Conveyance Project passes the benefit-cost test readily, with benefits that are more than double the cost,” said Dr. David Sunding, Emeritus Professor, UC Berkeley, who led the benefit-cost analysis, in a statement. 

“The project enables ongoing demands to be satisfied and water supply reliability to be maintained,” he said, adding “the benefits clearly justify the costs.”

The analysis also claimed that as climate change and regulatory constraints cause water supplies to diminish over time, the “reliability of the State Water Project infrastructure is in jeopardy, putting 27 million Californians and 750,000 acres of farmland at risk,” DWR explained.   

“Twenty-seven million people rely on these surface water supplies that support a $2.3 trillion economy in California.” said Karla Nemeth, Director of the California Department of Water Resources. “There is a very real cost to do nothing. It is vastly more efficient and economical to avoid declining supplies. 

Delta Tunnel project critics weren’t impressed by DWR’s analysis.

Restore the Delta noted that with annual inflation costs for construction rising to 10.7% since 2020, costs will continue to rise significantly during the extended permitting period prior to DCP construction, “making the $20.1 billion figure obsolete before construction begins.” 

“Moreover, the DCP would transport less water when compared to the previous California WaterFix twin tunnel project tunnel project that was projected to cost $16.7 billion. The DCP plan currently lacks signed agreements by water districts indicating their willingness to fund the project,” the group wrote.  

“DWR’s release is nothing more than an elaborate public relations stunt,” said Restore the Delta’s Executive Director Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla in a statement. “ The benefit-costs analysis is one-sided and incomplete since it only looks at benefits and costs for State Water Project customers.”

“DWR must also analyze and include the impacts to California tribes, Delta communities and economies, the fishing community, and environmental and public safety concerns. Instead of foisting the costs of this boondoggle project onto Californians, the state should invest in sustainable water solutions that promise to restore the Delta ecosystem, not destroy it,” she stated.

For more expert views of the benefit-cost analysis, Professor Jeff Michaels from the University of the Pacific McGeorge School of Law offers his thoughts here.

In his column, he asks DWR a number of questions, including the following:

“This report is being released over five years after Governor Newsom directed DWR to switch to a single-tunnel plan, and nearly two years after DWR released the details of its preferred project design in the Draft EIR,” said Dr. Michaels. “The Final EIR was released last year.”  

“Should benefit-cost analysis be conducted before or after an alternative is selected?” he asked.

As more reactions to the DWR analysis come in, I will post them here.  

Background: CA salmon, Delta fish populations are in worst-ever crisis as pumps keep exporting water to Big Ag

Central Valley salmon and Delta fish populations are in their worst-ever crisis ever as California Governor Newsom forges ahead with the Delta Tunnel and Sites Reservoir projects and the Big Ag voluntary agreements while fish populations get closer and closer to extinction.

California salmon fishing was closed in 2023 and will be closed this year also. The 2024 stock abundance forecast for Sacramento River Fall Chinook, often the most abundant stock in the ocean fishery, is only 213,600 adults. The return to Coleman Fish Hatchery was an absolute disaster. Meanwhile, abundance of Klamath River Fall Chinook is forecast at 180,700 adults.  

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: www.pcouncil.org/...

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.  

The State Water Project (SWP) and Central Valley Project (CVP) Delta “death pumps” have been the biggest killers of salmon, steelhead, Sacramento splittail and other fish species in California for many decades, as I have documented in hundreds of articles in an array of publications.

In the latest episode in this outrageous saga, a coalition of fishing and conservation groups, including the Golden Gate Salmon Association, San Francisco Baykeeper and Bay Institute, urged the state and federal water agencies to “take immediate action” to stop the unauthorized killing of thousands of Chinook Salmon and Steelhead at the State and Federal water export pumps in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta: www.dailykos.com/...

Both winter-run Chinook salmon and Central Valley steelhead are protected under the Federal Endangered Species Act (ESA). Central Valley winter-run Chinook Salmon is also protected under the California Endangered Species Act (CESA).

The coalition reported that this is the second time in 2024 the coalition has responded to an increase in killing of legally protected fish at the pumps of the State Water Project and the Central Valley Project (Projects or Water Projects).

While the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) has called for significant reductions in the Projects’ Delta water pumping, the California’s Department of Water Resources (DWR) and the federal Bureau of Reclamation that own and operate the Projects ignored these recommendations and continued to export water at rates that killed thousands of imperiled fishes, the groups said.

“Indeed, over the past week, DWR and Reclamation further increased pumping – as a result, significantly increasing take of winter-run Chinook Salmon at the pumps,” the groups said in a statement. “As a result, the Water Projects have exceeded the legal limits for killing both Central Valley Steelhead and winter-run Chinook Salmon established under the ESA by NMFS.”

State Water Project pumping accounts for 80% of the water exported from the Delta at this time, according to the groups.

The annual ESA take limit for winter-run Chinook Salmon is 1,776 fish. As of March 25, 2024, an estimated 3,030winter-run had been killed at the pumps – not counting the much larger number of fish that likely died after being drawn by pumping into inhospitable parts of the Delta, the groups said.

Since December 1, 2023, an estimated 2,919 naturally spawned Central Valley Steelhead have also been killed by the Water Projects. The maximum allowable ESA Steelhead take is 1,571 as a three-year rolling average or 2,760 in any single year. The numbers show that the Water Projects are in violation of both limits.

Now we turn to Delta Smelt. Unfortunately, the mainstream media, for the most part, either refuses to report on the Delta smelt or report inaccurately on the Delta Smelt when it does report. This is from an article in the LA Times in February 2024: “Recent surveys have found decreasing numbers of Delta smelt in the wild.”

Are you kidding? Actually, 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.

Between 1967 and 2020, the state’s Fall Midwater Trawl abundance indices for striped bass, Delta smelt, longfin smelt, American shad, splittail and threadfin shad have declined by 99.7, 100, 99.96, 67.9, 100, and 95%, respectively, according to the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance.

The graphs in the CDFW memo graphically illustrate how dramatic the declines in fish populations have been over the years: nrm.dfg.ca.gov/…   

Above photo of San Joaquin River in the Delta by Dan Bacher.

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