Delta tun­nels to re­main in limbo for now

The Modesto Bee - - Front Page - BY DALE KASLER AND RYAN SABALOW [email protected]

State of­fi­cials pulled back on their ef­fort Fri­day to se­cure a cru­cial green light for the Delta tun­nels project, all but en­sur­ing that the con­tro­ver­sial plan to re-en­gi­neer the West Coast’s largest es­tu­ary will re­main in limbo after Gov. Jerry Brown leaves of­fice.

Fac­ing a likely de­feat, the De­part­ment of Wa­ter Re­sources with­drew its pe­ti­tion to the Delta Stew­ard­ship Coun­cil to have the project deemed in com­pli­ance with what’s known as the the Delta Plan, a set of pol­icy goals, man­dated by state law, that put pro­tec­tion and restora­tion of the frag­ile Sacra­mento-San Joaquin Delta es­tu­ary’s ecosys­tem on an equal foot­ing with more re­li­able wa­ter sup­plies.

With­out the coun­cil’s green light, the $16.7 bil­lion project, known of­fi­cially as Cal­i­for­nia WaterFix, can’t go for­ward.

As a con­se­quence, reg­u­la­tory ap­proval for WaterFix al­most cer­tainly won’t be com­pleted be­fore Brown’s term as gov­er­nor runs out this year. Brown has cham­pi­oned the project for years, but his suc­ces­sor, Gov.-elect Gavin New­som, has taken a more luke­warm at­ti­tude to­ward WaterFix and has said it might have to be scaled back to one tun­nel in­stead of two.

The de­ci­sion by DWR Di­rec­tor Karla Nemeth was hailed as a vic­tory, at least in the short term, for op­po­nents of the project, which is de­signed to over­haul how North­ern Cal­i­for­nia river wa­ter gets de­liv­ered through the Delta to farms and cities in the south­ern half of the state.

“Now they have to go back to the draw­ing board and pre­pare a new cer­tifi­cate,” said Kel­ley Taber, a Sacra­mento lawyer who rep­re­sents sev­eral lo­cal gov­ern­ments that are fight­ing the project.

Taber said it isn’t clear how long that will take, but “it’s hard to see how these is­sues

could be fixed quickly.”

But DWR ex­pressed con­fi­dence the project was not im­per­iled.

“WaterFix will con­tinue to move for­ward,” DWR spokes­woman Erin Mel­lon said in an email. “We will work with the Delta Stew­ard­ship Coun­cil to re­solve is­sues re­lated to Delta Plan in­ter­pre­ta­tion and plan to sub­mit a re­vised cer­ti­fi­ca­tion.”

An ob­scure state agency formed in 2009, the Delta Stew­ard­ship Coun­cil was set to vote Dec. 20 on whether the tun­nels project com­plies with the Delta Plan.

But it was clear that the Stew­ard­ship Coun­cil wasn’t likely to go along with the state’s ap­pli­ca­tion. The coun­cil’s staff on Nov. 15 said the Brown ad­min­is­tra­tion hadn’t proven that the south­state wa­ter agen­cies have done enough to re­duce their re­liance on Delta wa­ter ship­ments, as the Delta Plan man­dates. The staff also crit­i­cized DWR for not us­ing up­dated anal­y­sis of how cli­mate change would af­fect tun­nels oper­a­tions, and it said the project poses ma­jor “con­flicts with land uses in ex­ist­ing Delta com­mu­ni­ties.”

At a coun­cil meet­ing in Novem­ber, board Chair­man Randy Fior­ini ripped the Brown ad­min­is­tra­tion for “po­lit­i­cal ex­pe­di­ency” and rush­ing the ap­pli­ca­tion be­fore it was ready.

In her let­ter to Fior­ini, Nemeth de­fended the pe­ti­tion but said her agency “ap­pre­ci­ates that there are un­re­solved is­sues” re­gard­ing the project.

Tun­nels back­ers ac­knowl­edged it was a set­back, but they hoped not a ma­jor one.

“I hope it’s just a time is­sue, like a fix-it ticket,” said Jeff Kightlinger, gen­eral man­ager for the Metropoli­tan Wa­ter Dis­trict of South­ern Cal­i­for­nia, the mas­sive Los An­ge­les ur­ban wa­ter agency that’s WaterFix’s big­gest booster. “Rather than fight it and ap­peal it, I fig­ured, let’s just pull it back we’ll get that more in­for­ma­tion to them and move for­ward . ... We’ve been work­ing on this over a decade. A few months isn’t go­ing to kill any­thing.”

Metropoli­tan agreed in April to bankroll $10.8 bil­lion of WaterFix’s to­tal cost, breath­ing new life into a project that was sput­ter­ing be­cause of fund­ing short­falls. Southof-Delta wa­ter agen­cies are sup­posed to pay for the en­tire project.

The with­drawal comes as the tun­nels project falls un­der at­tack from other quar­ters.

En­vi­ron­men­tal­ists, who are gen­er­ally op­posed to the tun­nels, say the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion is threat­en­ing to with­hold sup­port for WaterFix un­less Cal­i­for­nia of­fi­cials agree to sig­nif­i­cant changes in how wa­ter is shipped through the Delta. The Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion is try­ing to stream­line en­vi­ron­men­tal rules that some­times in­ter­fere with Delta pump­ing oper­a­tions — which means bil­lions of gal­lons of wa­ter some­times by­pass the de­liv­ery pumps and flows out to the ocean, leav­ing less wa­ter for the farm­ers and cities.

The state and fed­eral govern­ment pumps, lo­cated at the south end of the Delta, are so pow­er­ful that they can cause the river channels in the south Delta to run back­ward, caus­ing en­dan­gered smelt and win­ter-run Chi­nook salmon to mi­grate to­ward the pumps and preda­tory fish that gather to eat them at the in­takes.

The tun­nels, a pair of 35-mile-long un­der­ground pipes, are de­signed to bring some of the wa­ter from the Sacra­mento River near Court­land south of Sacra­mento di­rectly to the pump­ing sta­tions.The pumps then wouldn’t have to churn so hard, tamp­ing down the “re­verse flow” prob­lem and al­low­ing wa­ter de­liv­er­ies to pro­ceed with fewer prob­lems for the fish.

En­vi­ron­men­tal­ists, how­ever, say the tun­nels would ac­tu­ally worsen the Delta’s ecosys­tem and deprive the re­gion’s farm­ers of much of the fresh wa­ter they need to grow grapes, corn and other crops.

“To­day is a good day for the Delta and Cal­i­for­nia,” said Bar­bara Bar­ri­gan-Par­rilla of Re­store the Delta, a tun­nels op­po­nent. “But it’s not over yet.”

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