Los Angeles Times

Newsom unveils trimmer plan for delta water tunnel

Project to supply Southland still faces hurdles

- By Susanne Rust

Gov. Gavin Newsom said in 2019 he would downsize the state’s plan for tunneling around the Sacramento­San Joaquin River Delta to deliver water more easily to Southern California.

On Wednesday, he put some detail into that vague idea — 3,000 pages’ worth — unveiling plans for a single gigantic tunnel aimed at making water exports more reliable but with significan­t costs to the delta farm economy and possibly its fragile ecosystem.

As a historic drought intensifie­s its grip, and sealevel rises threaten to make the delta more salty, water managers in California’s most populated urban areas are growing increasing­ly concerned about the existing system for pumping supplies through the delta — not only a hub for conveying water but also an estuary that is home to rare species, some on the brink of extinction. The proposed tunnel — which is a trimmed-down version of tunnel scenarios proposed by the administra­tions of Govs. Arnold Schwarzene­gger and Jerry Brown — would grab excess water delivered by big storms and divert some of those Sacramento River flows to thirsty cities in the south. All along, the Metropolit­an Water District of Southern California has been a major driver of this

“Climate change continues to threaten every water source across the West,” said Adel Hagekhalil, the Metropolit­an Water District’s general manager. “We have a responsibi­lity to adapt to this change by capturing and storing excess water to protect our communitie­s and the environmen­t and to provide the ability to beneficial­ly use that stored water when conditions are dry.”

But the draft environmen­tal impact report said the project — a modern-day version of the Peripheral Canal — would also cause “unavoidabl­e” impacts to delta farms, according to the document released Wednesday. It is also unclear how much water would be diverted during different years and flow conditions, which environmen­talists fear could harm imperiled fish such as chinook salmon, steelhead and smelt.

“The status quo in the delta jeopardize­s the continued existence of our native fish and wildlife, and for the thousands of fishing jobs and communitie­s that depend on a healthy environmen­t,” said Doug Obegi, a senior attorney in the Natural Resources Defense Council’s water program. “This proposed system would be even worse for the environmen­t than the degraded status quo.”

He said it’s also unclear the proposal will be permitted, given that federal and state endangered species laws may forbid changed water diversions from habitat that supports already threatened species. If permitted, he said, it’ll be challenged in court.

The state’s favored proposal outlines the constructi­on of a tunnel — 36 feet in diameter on the inside — crossing the eastern side of the delta, whereas an earlier version went down the middle. It would capture water from the Sacramento River, just 17 miles south of the state capital, and deliver it to the Bethany Reservoir, northwest of Tracy, where the existing State Water Project pumps are.

If constructe­d, it would be the state’s largest infrastruc­ture venture since the high-speed rail system, a project that has faced numerous delays, cost overruns and litigation — hurdles that could also hobble the water tunnels. It would also create thousands of jobs — one reason the state’s powerful labor unions have backed versions of it for decades, along with numerous governors.

Cost estimates are running around $16 billion — $3 billion less than the previous iteration, a double-tunnel system proposed in 2018 during Brown’s administra­tion.

Large water districts, including the Metropolit­an Water District and the Santa Clara Valley Water District in San Jose, have been funding the planning of the tunnel system for years. They are joined by 14 other water agencies that receive water from the State Water Project.

Between 2021 and 2024, that group of water agencies, known as the Delta Conveyance Design and Constructi­on Authority, planned to spend about $360 million on the effort. The MWD is footing about 44% — roughly $160 million.

The single tunnel project is smaller than iterations proposed during the Brown and Schwarzene­gger administra­tions.

This new one has a maximum capacity of 6,000 cubic feet per second, whereas Brown’s plan called for a capacity 50% higher. Schwarzene­gger’s plan was even bigger — 15,000 cubic feet per second.

Though huge, all these projects would shuttle significan­tly less water than one proposed in the 1980s: the Peripheral Canal, defeated by voters, which would have had a maximum capacity of 22,000 cubic feet per second.

Although the proposed tube would be smaller, it could actually provide almost as much water as some of the earlier versions, said Greg Gartrell, an adjunct fellow at the Public Policy Institute of California and an independen­t consulting engineer.

“This is the problem they’ve had since the beginning,” he said. “Bigger doesn’t get you a whole lot more water.”

Deliveries of water through the delta have long been constraine­d by species considerat­ions, and that would not change under this plan. What will change is water quality.

As climate change intensifie­s, studies show that salt water will intrude farther up the Sacramento-San Joaquin estuary, further threatenin­g the purity of water taken by public utilities in Contra Costa County and Southern California. It is also expected to imperil the supplies of federal water contractor­s, who have declined to help finance the tunnel project, despite the risks they face.

Obegi, of the Natural Resources Defense Council, said the new plan makes clear how Newsom and his California Department of Water Resources officials want to proceed.

Throughout the process, he said, the administra­tion hasn’t fully explored other options, such as conservati­on and putting a higher price on environmen­tal benefits.

“The fact that they are not even analyzing any alternativ­es including more protective operating rules and leaving more water for the environmen­t is really troubling,” he said.

Other analysts say there is room for California to take advantage of big — and irregular — deluges.

Jeffrey Mount, a senior fellow at the Public Policy Institute of California, said that over the last 12 years, “we’ve had three very wet years. And in those years, the vast majority of that water flowed through the delta and into San Francisco Bay.”

“Even if you maximized the ability to take some of that water ... it wouldn’t have had much of an effect” on the environmen­t, he said. “There’d still be fresh water all the way to the Golden Gate.”

Those arguments have been made before, and California has yet to fully embrace them. The state has studied various blueprints for rerouting delta water since Gov. Pat Brown — Jerry Brown’s father — was governor. Newsom is the latest to offer his own proposal.

Assuming he is reelected, Newsom will leave office at the end of 2026. In the most hopeful scenario, constructi­on on this plan wouldn’t begin until two years later — assuming it can receive permits and survive lawsuits.

 ?? Rich Pedroncell­i Associated Press ?? A SIGN in Freeport, Calif., in 2016 opposes an earlier plan for the Sacramento­San Joaquin River Delta. Environmen­talists still worry about imperiled fish.
Rich Pedroncell­i Associated Press A SIGN in Freeport, Calif., in 2016 opposes an earlier plan for the Sacramento­San Joaquin River Delta. Environmen­talists still worry about imperiled fish.
 ?? Rich Pedroncell­i Associated Press ?? A DRAFT ENVIRONMEN­TAL impact report says the tunnel project would cause “unavoidabl­e” impacts to Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta farms.
Rich Pedroncell­i Associated Press A DRAFT ENVIRONMEN­TAL impact report says the tunnel project would cause “unavoidabl­e” impacts to Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta farms.

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