Environmental report on controversial Delta water tunnel cites damage to wildlife

Bethan Dams
An aerial drone view of the Bethany Dams and Reservoir, located on the California Aqueduct near Livermore. Courtesy of California Department of Water Resources

The California Water Agency has released a long-awaited environmental report outlining the details and impacts of a controversial proposal to re-plumb the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and pump more water south.

In the report, released Thursday, state officials said the tunnel project could harm endangered and threatened species, including Delta smelt, Chinook salmon and rainbow trout. sky. To offset ‘potentially significant impacts’ on rare fish, the Department of Water Resources says thousands of acres of other wetlands would need to be restored – which critics say is a slow and inefficient way to provide a new habitat.

The Environmental Impact Report project is a major step in planning for a tunnel that would fundamentally reshape California’s massive water management system.

The report outlines the proposed route of a 45-mile tunnel that would channel water from the Sacramento River, bypassing the delta, and funnel it into Bethany Reservoir, the “first stop” on a state aqueduct that channels water to the south.

The project, envisaged in various forms since the 1960s, aims to strengthen water supplies against environmental disasters such as earthquakes and the weather whiplash and sea level rise of climate change, according to California Secretary of Natural Resources Wade Crowfoot.

Water agencies that may eventually sign on to receive the water section of the tunnel project from the Bay Area and Central Coast to the Central Valley and Southern California.

“It’s an enigma how we can manage the delta in a way that protects the environment, respects the communities that live there, and secures water supplies for much of the state,” Crowfoot said.

The state’s companion explainer for the report, also released Thursday, says flow changes at and downstream of the tunnel’s water intakes “have the potential to reduce migration rates, alter the route migration, reduce the availability of rearing habitat, and increase exposure to predation for the winter- run chinook salmon, Central Valley spring chinook salmon, and rainbow trout central valley sky.

Carrie Buckman, environmental program manager for the state’s Delta Conveyance Office, said the department’s analysis found that 4% fewer juvenile winter chinook would survive during their peak hours in the Delta over the years. water below normal.

The summary also notes “potentially significant impacts on delta smelt and longfin smelt” as changes in delta flow “could affect the species directly or indirectly through changes in factors such as the availability of the food”.

Environmentalists said the project would endanger salmon and other fish that are already in poor condition.

“We know the status quo is really bad for fish and wildlife, but their own (environmental impact) document shows the Delta Tunnel will make it even worse,” said Doug Obegi, senior defense counsel. natural resources. “You could have a delta tunnel that protects the environment, at least in theory, but none of the ones that have been proposed or analyzed here seem to even pass this basic test.”

Buckman said about 1,500 to 3,500 acres of wetlands would be restored to offset environmental damage.

“The restored habitat would be designed to look and function like marsh habitats currently in the delta, such as those on Liberty Island,” she said in an email. She added that habitat restoration timelines will be tied to the project schedule and will include provisions requiring restoration before impacts.

Water experts and conservationists, however, question whether restoring other wetlands would protect salmon and other fish.

“The state has a poor record of habitat mitigation,” said retired Contra Costa Water District consultant and water manager Greg Gartrell. “They are very slow and they are very meticulous. But they get in their own way.

A priority of Governor Gavin Newsom, the effort has also drawn opposition from environmental groups and Delta residents, who fear that freshwater extraction from the Delta coupled with years of construction will leave the region salty, stagnant. and sterile.

“I fear the Delta will eventually become ghost towns,” Kathy Bunton, a Delta resident and owner of Delta Kayak Adventures, told CalMatters last month. “It’s just heartbreaking.”

The 3,000-page draft outlines the potential operations of the tunnel routes and their environmental consequences. Alternative routes also being considered would connect to an existing pumping station in the south of the delta.

“This project is critical to ensuring Californians have access to a high-quality, affordable, and reliable water supply amid the growing impacts of climate change,” said Jennifer Pierre, chief executive of State Water Contractors, an association of agencies water utilities. statement.

The project “clearly demonstrates that the project has been scaled down, refined and redesigned to avoid and reduce local impacts and address environmental concerns,” she said.

The long-awaited tunnel project was at this stage before: another environmental impact report was finalized in 2016. Yet this project, a pair of tunnels, stumbled due to high costs and finally disappeared when Newsom withdrew support from the administration.

Other tunnel impacts include the removal of 71 structures, including 15 residences; the conversion of more than 2,300 acres of farmland deemed “of statewide significance”; disturbance of cultural and historic sites and resources; and construction noise.

Planning and building a tunnel could take until 2040

The price has not yet been updated, but it is believed to be in the billions. In 2020, one of the alternative paths was estimated to be worth just under $16 billion. The state plans to issue bonds to finance the final design and construction process; water agencies receiving the water will be required to reimburse the state.

The Delta’s replenishment projects took decades, changing shape over time from a canal to twin tunnels to finally becoming a single tunnel which Newsom promoted when he took office.

If ultimately approved, the project would take decades longer to complete. Californians will have 90 days to comment on the draft environmental impact report, one of the first steps in a permitting process that could take years. Construction, which is not expected to start before 2028, could take another 12 to 13 years.

Crowfoot said the state is moving as fast as it can. But he said the state must be careful because he is likely to face lawsuits.

“The governor is committed to having this project essentially in a place where it will be built by the end of this administration,” Crowfoot said. “He has a number of potential environmental litigants. We must do what is required by law.

The State Water Project supplies 27 million people and 750,000 acres of farmland – transporting water across the southern delta with pumps so powerful they can cause rivers to run backwards.

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