California Slammed Over ‘Blank Check’ for Delta Tunnel Project

Many Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta residents oppose plans by the state of California to build a tunnel under the estuary to divert water from the Sacramento River and send it to the south part of the state. (Nick Cahill / CNS)

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) — Lobbing another hurdle at California’s $16 billion plan to tunnel underneath the West Coast’s largest estuary, environmentalists on Thursday sued to freeze public funding for the megaproject championed by Governor Gavin Newsom.  

Led by Sierra Club and the Center for Biological Diversity, a familiar coalition of critics of the so-called delta tunnel claim the cash-strapped state is pursuing a “blank check” for a project that isn’t fully cooked. 

“It’s outrageous that California officials would commit funds for this massively harmful water tunnel without public engagement or environmental review,” said John Buse, the center’s senior counsel in a statement. “This boondoggle will destroy the delta ecosystem in a desperate attempt to continue unsustainable water use in Central and Southern California.”

The lawsuit is the latest chapter in the fight over the state’s decades-long attempt to funnel water around the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta directly to megagrowers and cities like Los Angeles in the south.

While Newsom drew applause from environmentalists just months after taking office when he scrapped his predecessor’s litigation-prone plan, a new version quickly emerged.

With conservationists clamoring for the governor to take a more holistic approach to the delta and the state’s antiquated water problems, Newsom instead linked himself to what is undoubtedly one of the most controversial water projects in state history.

This past January, the state revived the idea and filed paperwork to officially begin the environmental review process. Newsom and the Department of Water Resources contend the plan is a long overdue infrastructure update and will help ward off damage to crucial aqueducts caused by earthquakes and rising sea levels. 

Stretching across 1,100 square miles and five counties, the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta and its dozens of manmade islands support a $5 billion agricultural industry and supply water to over 25 million Californians through the federally operated Central Valley Project and the State Water Project.

But continual overpumping, agricultural runoff and tepid water temperatures have nearly extinguished a once-booming salmon population and polluted water quality, causing environmentalists to warn that the billion-dollar plumbing job — if ever completed — could ignite an ecological disaster.

Despite the environmental concerns and the previous failed attempts to get the ambitious project out of the planning phase, the Newsom administration is moving forward with the plan and has made it a focal point of the state’s so-called “water portfolio.” With planning and environmental review still underway, the Department of Water Resources asked a state judge this past August for clearance to use bonds to fund the contentious project. 

The move stirred a new wave of fear for the tunnel opponents who say the state was pursuing a “blank check” during the pandemic-induced recession. They point to the fact the department states in its validation petition the total amount of bonds is unclear but that the principal shouldn’t be “limited.”

Along with Thursday’s lawsuit, the environmentalists are separately fighting the August validation attempt. The coalition is looking to throw a wrench in the plan by forcing the state back to the drawing board when it comes to the lofty price tag.

“This premature move to secure unlimited funding during the Covid-19 pandemic is just more of the same old shenanigans we have seen over the years from the Department of Water Resources in regard to the tunnel,” said Tim Stroshane of co-plaintiff Restore the Delta. “DWR put the cart before the horse. There is no final delta tunnel plan, no environmental impact report, no permit from the State Water Resources Control Board and no federal permits.”  

Filed in Sacramento County Superior Court, the lawsuit also asks for an order prohibiting the state from performing physical planning work until all environmental review is complete. For over a year the department has been conducting geotechnical drilling in three delta counties. 

As the state works out the final details, the environmentalists say they are happy to double as financial watchdogs for the estimated $16 billion tunnel.

“The single tunnel project would have devastating consequences for the delta,” said plaintiffs’ attorney Bob Wright in a statement. “The state can’t afford to continue throwing money away on this unsustainable pipe dream.”

In a statement, the Department of Water Resources said its validation effort is meant to confirm its authority to authorize and issue bonds, and confirmation of that authority “does not commit the department to any particular course of action.

“The department retains its full discretion to approve or reject a project following CEQA review.”

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