California Pushes Ahead on Twin Water Tunnels Under Estuary


SACRAMENTO (CN) — California’s ambitious $15 billion plan to tunnel below the largest freshwater estuary on the West Coast in hopes of fixing its water woes will “minimize” effects on endangered salmon, state officials said Tuesday though environmentalists doubt it.
     The California Department of Water Resources said the controversial project will give officials more flexibility in monitoring and controlling water temperatures in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, and protect juvenile Chinook salmon from river pumping stations.
     The department released its latest biological assessment of the project, which must be approved by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service.
     The assessment is required under the Endangered Species Act because the “California WaterFix” affects the habitat of several protected species, including Chinook salmon, Delta smelt, green sturgeon and the Central Valley steelhead.
     Officials said the assessment was developed “in close collaboration” with the federal agencies.
     “This collaboration has determined the scope of the [project], the species addressed, the analyses used to assess effects on those species and changes to the [project] to ensure that effects are minimized and, to the extent possible, beneficial,” the report states.
     Proposed in 2006, the project calls for massive, 30-mile-long twin tunnels underneath the delta to send water to farmers and cities south of the estuary.
     Proponents say the tunnels will protect the state’s water supply from earthquakes, climate change and levee failure.
     The Delta is the ending point of the state’s two largest rivers and the hub of the Golden State’s water system, providing water to 25 million residents.
     While voters rejected a similar project in the 1980s, Gov. Jerry Brown has dedicated millions in state funding to get the proposal moving in his fourth term.
     In January he called the plan a “fundamental necessity” to California’s future and promised to “get it done.”
     Environmentalists say diverting fresh water from the already overdrawn Delta will further decimate the ecosystem and jeopardize water quality.
     Recent studies noted the delta’s list of problems and blamed the poor water quality on a combination of drought, saltwater intrusion from San Francisco Bay and agricultural runoff.
     Restore the Delta, a vocal critic of the California WaterFix, says it is still reviewing the 500-plus page assessment but warned that the “devil is in the details.”
     “What the Brown administration sells as solutions through public relations ends up being a no pass when it comes to real science. We will keep the public up to date on our findings,” said Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla, executive director of Restore the Delta.
     While the project is designed to “minimize” environmental impact on the delta, the report acknowledges some “scientific uncertainty.” The gigantic project would replace acres of tidal habitat, kick up loose sediment and create the risk of hazardous spills into the delta during construction.
     Suspended sediment can clog gill tissues and studies have shown that some species will avoid streams that are overly turbid.
     Levee clearing and dredging are certain to increase obstacles for the delta’s migrating species such as salmon and steelhead, according to the report.
     “Turbidity and suspended sediment levels in the river are anticipated to exceed ambient river levels in the immediate vicinity of these activities, creating turbidity plumes that may extended several hundred feet downstream of construction activities,” the report states.
     Planners say the project’s effects would likely be localized to construction areas and be temporary.
     While state officials wait for the assessment to be approved by the federal agencies, the project could be delayed by a November ballot measure.
     Proposition 53, which calls for a public vote on any state project requiring more than $2 billion in revenue bonds, could stall the Delta’s overhaul if approved by voters. It has been vehemently opposed by state agencies, including the Office of Emergency Services, and by the California Chamber of Commerce.
     Opponents warn that Prop. 53 takes control over infrastructure projects away from local entities and allows voters from other regions to stall progress. They also say it does not contain an exemption for natural disasters and so could delay the state’s response to emergencies.
     Former Stockton-area farmer Dean Cortopassi is leading the fund-raising charge and has helped raise more than $3 million for the “No Blank Checks” initiative.