What to Look For in the New Delta Tunnels Plan

Late last week, the Brown Administration released its latest analysis of the proposal to build two massive tunnels under California's Bay-Delta estuary -- the largest estuary on the west coast of the Americas -- to divert water from the Sacramento River to agricultural and municipal users in the San Joaquin Valley and southern California. In the weeks ahead, we'll be taking a close look at this latest iteration to see how and whether the myriad problems in previous Delta tunnel proposals have been addressed. Here are some of the key issues to look out for:

  • The impacts of the tunnels on the inhabitants of the Bay-Delta - human and not - depend primarily on how much water they will divert. It's long been recognized that a primary cause of poor water quality, declining fisheries, and environmental degradation in the Delta is lack of sufficient flow. We divert about half of the freshwater out of the estuary on average, much more in dry times such as the current drought, and that is simply not sustainable. The State of California recognized that fact when it passed the Delta Reform Act of 2009 and mandated a policy of reducing reliance on the Delta. To pass muster under these scientific and legal realities that we must take less freshwater out of the Bay-Delta, the tunnels have to reduce water diversions as compared to today. No fuzzy math allowed about what it means to "reduce" diversions - we take about 4.9 million acre-feet on average under existing rules and regulations. The tunnels must take less than that on average - agency biologists have suggested about 0.5 million acre-feet less - or it will worsen existing conditions and conflict with state law.
  • The prior draft of the Bay Delta Conservation Plan failed to adequately protect the Delta's native fish and wildlife (and the thousands of fishing jobs that they support), leading state and federal wildlife agencies to reject it. We understand that the new proposal dramatically scales back habitat restoration, eliminates many of the other conservation measures, and proposes to increase water exports compared to today's levels. How can a plan that does less for fish and wildlife, and takes more water from the Delta, be good for the health of the estuary?
  • How will the tunnels' multi-billion dollar price tag allow for the many billions of dollars of investment needed in sustainable local and regional water supplies? Neither the state of California nor its taxpayers nor its rate-paying public has bottomless supplies of cash. Governor Brown has, to his credit, recognized that the path to a sustainable water future in California is through investments in water recycling, water conservation and efficiency, stormwater capture and reuse, and improved groundwater management. We agree, as do most enlightened water districts around the state. But these investments cost money. The state's previous tunnels proposal had a pricetag in excess of $60 billion, when paying off interest and financing costs over a 50-year period were considered. That massive pricetag will necessarily divert resources from other needed investments in sustainable water supply and demand management projects. By how much? How will we accomplish an "all of the above" strategy in a resource-limited world? The state has not yet answered that question, nor have they identified the water districts that are willing to pay for the project (and how much they will pay), but must do so before we embark on one of the most expensive public works projects ever proposed.
  • Commitments to operate the tunnels in a certain manner must be meaningful and enforceable. The state can study the impacts of operating the tunnels in a variety of ways until we're all blue in the face, but those studies and predictions are meaningless if the tunnels are operated differently than proposed when they come on line. How does the state ensure that its promises to operate a certain way and its predictions of impacts reflect reality? This one is a thorny nut to crack given the state's current repeated waivers of minimum water quality standards in the Bay-Delta over the last two years to increase diversions in the drought, at the great expense of fish, wildlife, and water quality for farms and cities in the Delta. And how does the state insure that existing laws will be complied with, when the House of Representatives is this very week likely to vote to repeal many of those self-same laws protecting Delta water quality, flowing rivers, and the native species of California?

We look forward to searching the state's new documents for the answers to these and other key questions, and continuing the public debate about the right water future for California.

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