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California cements plan to tunnel out of water crisis

What was once dubbed "the delta tunnels" still faces stiff opposition from environmentalists and farmers.

(CN) — Try, try and try again is the motto for the state of California for when it comes to building a tunnel to transport water from the Sacramento River to farms and communities in Central and Southern California. The latest step came in the form of a draft environmental impact report Wednesday morning for what is formally called Delta Conveyance Project.

"Rebuilding our infrastructure in the delta is critical to adapting to the future and providing clean and reliable water supply to Californians. Especially with persistent drought, the Delta Conveyance Project is an important component to our ability to provide reliable water supplies. Two of three Californians depend on water that moves through the delta — water that this project will help secure against climate change and natural disasters," a spokesperson for Governor Gavin Newsom said in a statement.

Ever since the Central Valley Water Project and the State Water Project were created to transport water to the south part of the state, there have been efforts to build a tunnel to funnel additional water.

Early 21st century efforts called for multiple massive tunnels. Those plans dried up after water agencies withdrew funding support amid a backlash and lawsuits from environmental groups and delta water providers.

In 2019, Newsom withdrew his support of the California WaterFix and directed various state agencies to look at smaller alternatives. The Delta Conveyance Project is the result of that effort — a diversion of 6,000 cubic feet per second from the Sacramento River to pumping stations in the southern delta.

A number of environmental groups, congressmen, water agencies and others have voiced their opposition to the project. They say the project will burden the delta, reduce its water quality and provide no additional water to customers in the south.

Brett Baker, attorney at Nomellini Grilli & McDaniel and counsel for the Central Delta Water Agency, said his organization is prepared to fight the project as it will negatively affect farmers across the region.

“We remain opposed to this project and any other isolated facilities to circumnavigate the delta and the legal responsibilities the state has to maintain water quality in the delta,” said Baker.

He said this is not the first time the state has tried to go around the law in relation to the delta with emergency orders, curtailments and other projects negatively affecting water and water quality in the area.

“I have concerns about the long-term viability of the project, the impacts the salinity will have on farmers, and how construction will impact farmers,” said Baker. “This project will not create more water, instead if just moves around the limited water that is currently available.”

The Central Delta Water Agency is not the only group to speak out against the Delta Conveyance Project as the Sierra Club, Restore the Delta, Natural Resources Defense Council and others have all raised similar concerns.

The Sierra Club told its members that other water projects should be considered so less water from the delta is used. These projects should be localized and include water recycling, stormwater capture, desalination and other projects in Central and southern California.

“The tunnel project offers no reliability, incurs massive environmental damage, decimates delta communities, and results in higher water costs for Southern Californians,” the Sierra Club said.

Restore the Delta said early on that the project would not support levees in the delta, would be susceptible to earthquakes and negatively affect minority communities across California.

Three Democrats representing delta residents in Congress — Josh Harder, John Garamendi, and Jerry McNerney — have joined together on an amendment to the 2023 federal budget which would prohibit the Army Corps of Engineers from issuing a Clean Water Act permit for the project. The budget passed the House in July.

“I refuse to let politicians in Sacramento get away with a water grab that would take Valley water and ship it downstate,” said Harder. “It’s time we protect our valley water so every farmer, rancher, mom and dad has the water they need to support their business and their family. My family has spent generations on the delta, and I plan on protecting it so my daughter can do the same.”

Still, over 15 water contractors and agencies in Central and Southern California have shown their support — financially and otherwise — for the project.

“It is critical that we do everything we can to make sure this vital water supply remains reliable,” Metropolitan Water Board chair Gloria D. Gray said after her group voted to fund its share of the draft environmental impact report. “It not only provides nearly one-third of the water used in Southern California, it is also one of our most affordable and highest quality supplies. This action helps ensure our communities can rely on this water for generations to come.”

Carrie Buckman, environmental program manager at California Department of Water Resources, told the Delta Independent Science Board at its July meeting that the draft report would only examine conditions as they are today and would not take into account the future effects of climate change. The California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) does not require projects to look at long-term effects from climate change.

While the draft report discusses the effect of sea level rise and other issues caused by climate change it would not influence the decision made on which route to go.

The report authors ran 10 climate models and two emission models. The climate models were used to predict future river flows and changes in precipitation but did not account for short-term flooding events. The models were used to predict when and how much water would be available to pump through the project, especially with changing precipitation.

As proposed, the tunnel would run along the eastern side of the delta. Two intakes would be built near the community of Hood, approximately two miles south of Sacramento. Each facility would pump 3,000 cubic feet per second into a single tunnel which would run south and east through the community of Thornton and underneath a number of delta islands, sloughs, levees and more.

The water would then be discharged into the Bethany Reservoir and an aqueduct would be built to transfer water to the currently existing water project pump stations.

The project would be supported by funding from various water agencies who will get the delta water as well as through bonds. Construction may take 12-15 years, with completion by 2040.

Comments are now being accepted on the draft report through Oct. 27. The public will also be able to comment during three virtual meetings planned for September.

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