Fishing and Conservation Groups Sue to Block Delta Tunnels Project

Federal Agencies Approve ‘WaterFix’ Acknowledging It Will Harm Fish and Wildlife

SAN FRANCISCO — Conservation and fishing groups filed litigation today challenging the biological opinions issued Monday by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and National Marine Fisheries Service that pave the way for construction and operation of California WaterFix, the massive tunnels project that experts say will further devastate fisheries and water quality of the San Francisco Bay-Delta.

According to the lawsuits—which were brought by Golden Gate Salmon Association, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), Defenders of Wildlife and The Bay Institute—the biological opinions violate the Endangered Species Act. While the biological opinions identify significant harm to winter-run Chinook salmon and other threatened and endangered species from the construction and operation of the proposed project, they do not identify how the massive new diversion tunnels can and should be operated to prevent that harm. Decades of increasingly unsustainable water diversions have brought several of the Central Valley’s migratory and resident fish to the brink of extinction; the proposed project is expected to increase these diversions.   

“This version of the tunnels will wipe out California’s salmon fishery and the families and communities that rely on salmon,” said John McManus, executive director of the Golden Gate Salmon Association. “The problem is the state basically allowed the water users to design the tunnels and they’re so huge that the federal fish and wildlife agencies are basically throwing up their hands. It’s like they let the fox design the hen house so of course he made it easy to rob.”  

The lawsuit claims that the biological opinions not only unlawfully fail to protect native salmon and other fish from extinction, but allow river conditions to degrade further. The biological opinions also fail to consider the long-term effects of the project after its scheduled opening in 2031. The lawsuits also claim that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service failed to use the best available science in its biological opinion.

“Politics has trumped science once again,” says Doug Obegi, senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council’s water program. “Instead of fixing the major environmental problems with the project, the agencies tasked with protecting our natural resources are making things worse and assuming that someone else will fix them down the line.”

The tunnels would divert millions of acre-feet of water from rivers before it reaches the Bay-Delta. Studies indicate that reduced water flows into, through and out of the Delta damage water quality in the San Francisco Bay estuary. Freshwater flows are particularly important to endangered species, including two populations of Chinook salmon, steelhead, green sturgeon and two species of smelt.

“Decades of research and study demonstrate that unsustainable diversion of water from the San Francisco Bay estuary is the single most important factor driving the decline of numerous fish and wildlife populations,” said Jonathan Rosenfield, lead scientist for The Bay Institute. “The tunnels do not change that reality and neither will an amorphous ‘adaptive management’ program that amounts to wishful thinking. The agencies need to come to grips with the negative impacts of maintaining the unsustainable status quo now, not after the concrete has been poured.”

“By green-lighting WaterFix, the federal government is green lighting extinction,” said Rachel Zwillinger, water policy advisor for Defenders of Wildlife. “The proposed Delta tunnels could be the nail in the coffin for native fish like Chinook salmon and Delta smelt, causing them to disappear from the San Francisco Bay-Delta forever. We’re going to court to ensure that WaterFix meets the requirements of the Endangered Species Act so that our children and grandchildren can experience the ecological treasure that is the Bay-Delta.”


  • The San Francisco Bay-Delta is the largest estuary on the west coast of the Americas and a critical resource for all of California. It provides drinking water for more than 25 million Californians, irrigation water for more than 3 million acres of farmland, a home and recreational backyard to millions of Californians, and essential habitat for more than 700 species of fish and wildlife, including the commercially valuable Chinook salmon that sustains thousands of fishing jobs up and down the coast. Numerous state administrations, including the current one, have recognized that the Bay-Delta is in serious decline and needs immediate attention to ensure that it can continue to provide these crucial functions.
  • The “California WaterFix” project proposed by Governor Jerry Brown would build and operate twin tunnels with a combined capacity of 9,000 cubic feet per second to divert millions of acre-feet of water before it reaches the Bay Delta estuary. The project is projected to cost water agencies close to $60 billion including financing charges over the next several decades, which would pass on these costs to ratepayers. This threatens local funding needed for sustainable water supply solutions like water recycling, stormwater capture, groundwater banking and improved water use efficiency.
  • Biological opinions are essentially permits under the Endangered Species Act. They summarize analyze the impact of a specific project and determine whether the project is likely to jeopardize the survival and the recovery of the species.  




About The Bay Institute
The Bay Institute (TBI)  is a nonprofit conservation organization dedicated to protecting, restoring, and inspiring conservation of, San Francisco Bay and its watershed, from the Sierra to the sea. Based in San Francisco, TBI’s scientists and policy experts work to promote policies, programs and projects that protect endangered species, restore a healthy Bay ecosystem, and reform how California manages its water resources. TBI is the research, education and advocacy arm of the Bay Ecotarium/; visit us at and follow us on Twitter @TheBayInstitute.


About Defenders of Wildlife
Defenders of Wildlife is dedicated to the protection of all native animals and plants in their natural communities. With nearly 1.2 million members and activists, Defenders of Wildlife is a leading advocate for innovative solutions to safeguard our wildlife heritage for generations to come. For more information, visit and follow us on Twitter @DefendersNews.


About the Golden Gate Salmon Association
The Golden Gate Salmon Association ( is a coalition of salmon advocates that includes commercial and recreational salmon fisherman, businesses, restaurants, a native tribe, environmentalists, elected officials, families and communities that rely on salmon. GGSA’s mission is to protect and restore California’s largest salmon producing habitat comprised of the Central Valley river’s that feed the Bay-Delta ecosystem and the communities that rely on salmon as a long-term, sustainable, commercial, recreational and cultural resource.


About the Natural Resources Defense Council
The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) is an international nonprofit environmental organization with more than 2 million members and online activists. Since 1970, our lawyers, scientists, and other environmental specialists have worked to protect the world's natural resources, public health, and the environment. NRDC has offices in New York City, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, Bozeman, MT, and Beijing. Visit us at and follow us on Twitter @NRDC.


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