Groups Lambaste Delta Tunnel ‘Boondoggle’

     SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) – Scientists and environmentalists blasted California Gov. Jerry Brown’s ambitious $15 billion water project Tuesday, calling the plan a “land grab” and a vast threat to endangered wildlife.
     A panel of professors, attorneys and water-policy analysts reacted to the 48,000-page environmental impact report on the proposed Bay Delta Conservation Plan to build massive twin tunnels underneath the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. The group says state and federal officials ignored cheaper alternatives and failed to produce an EIR that protects endangered species in the largest freshwater estuary on the West Coast.
     “This massively expensive public works boondoggle is the equivalent of pouring gasoline on a building that is already on fire,” said Robert Wright, senior counsel for the environmental group Friends of the River.
     Wright said the plan, known as the Delta Tunnels Project, evades the Endangered Species Act as currently proposed and will threaten Chinook salmon and green sturgeon populations already jeopardized by poor delta water quality.
     The contentious plan proposes twin 30-mile tunnels to run south from Sacramento to Tracy that will supply water for state water projects and Central Valley farmers. California voters have struck down similar proposals in the past but the Delta Tunnels Project is not up for public vote.
     Brown and state officials say the plan is necessary to protect the overdrawn delta, which supplies water to an estimated 25 million residents and farmers and 230 agencies.
     The delta’s ecosystem has been stretched thin by prolonged drought and both sides are warning of catastrophic damage to the state’s most important water resource if mismanagement continues.
      A study released Tuesday by an independent panel of scientists called the smorgasbord of problems in the delta “wicked” and “complex.” The report, “Challenges Facing the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta” detailed the potential for levee failures that could leave delta water brackish from a sudden salinity intrusion from San Francisco Bay water. It also pins poor delta water quality on increased agricultural and wastewater treatment plant runoff.
     California officials said the independent study authored by four scientists is an “urgent call to action.”
     “While different stakeholders express strong differences about project options and proposed habitat restoration – doing nothing is worse than anything on the table,” said California Secretary for Natural Resources John Laird in a statement. “We cannot be distracted from that fact. It should motivate us to find solutions together to the complex problems outlined in this report.”
     Winding through a maze of shallow channels, marshes and islands, the delta encompasses an area nearly the size of Rhode Island and is the main source of water for the state’s booming $54 billion agricultural industry . Opponents of the plan claim the tunnels are an expensive way to supply major agricultural industries in the Central Valley and water districts with larger and more reliable water deliveries at the expense of the important estuary’s health.
     Barbara Barrigan-Parilla, executive director of Restore the Delta, says the tunnels will waste $60 billion without creating a substantial amount of new water and will destroy communities around the delta. She lambasted Brown Tuesday for continuing to push a project initially proposed by his father in the 1960s.
     “Instead of continuing to cling stubbornly to this flawed family legacy, Gov. Brown needs to do the right thing for the future of the state he loves,” she said. “He needs to drop the tunnels project once and for all.”
     Barrigan-Parilla’s group previously hounded Brown and state officials over an April amendment to the conservation plan that reduces the initial amount of habitat restoration from 100,000 acres to just 30,000, in order to accelerate construction. Lawmakers questioned the amendment as well.
     “The tunnels will move forward, and the commitment to the health of the delta has been reduced in large part and relegated to a separate track,” said Sen. Lois Wolk, D-Davis, in a statement.
     While the EIR contains 19 alternatives to the twin tunnels, it intentionally misrepresents the plan’s actual water yield and ignores less expensive options to protect the delta, says Jeffrey Michael, director of the Center for Business and Policy Research at the University of Pacific.
     Michael said the EIR estimates annual water yields to be just 250,000 acre-feet more than is currently provided and that improved water recycling and desalination plants provide higher returns on investment than the tunnels.
     “From an economic perspective, the tunnels don’t make sense,” Michael said. “The project proponents should release a solid financial plan and cost-benefit analysis, and revise EIR/EIS to be consistent.”
     The public comment period for the plan ends Oct. 30 and the California Department of Water Resources says it’s received more than 30,000 comments.

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