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Groups Want a New Look at Delta Tunnel Plan

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Signs opposing the tunnels plan are ubiquitous in the Delta | Photo: Emily Green

An explanatory series focusing on one of the most complex issues facing California: water sharing. And at its core is the Sacramento-San Joaquin Bay Delta. Stay with for all the project's stories.

A consortium of environmental protection groups says that a massive proposed project to shunt water around the Delta through twin 40-foot-wide tunnels hasn't been given the environmental review the law requires. They're calling for a new environmental assessment process that compares the potential environmental effect of the tunnels to alternatives that would reduce water exports from the Delta.

The groups say that the existing environmental assessments for the tunnel project, formally called the Bay Delta Conservation Plan (BDCP), fail to include any alternatives for consideration that would increase water flows through the Delta by reducing exports. That's a violation of both state and Federal environmental laws, say the groups, who charge that the existing environmental assessments stack the deck in favor of building the tunnels.

The groups made their objections known in a letter sent to state and federal agencies involved in crafting the BDCP. The letter was signed by representatives from Friends of the River, Restore the Delta, the Center for Biological Diversity, the California Water Impact Network, the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance, and the Environmental Water Caucus. The letter was sent to the U.S. Departments of the Interior and Commerce, the Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, the California Department of Water Resources, and the state's Natural Resources Agency.

The agencies that received the letter are the primary proponents of the Bay Delta Conservation Plan. Backers say the project is necessary to fix a weak link on the system that diverts northern California water to the south. At present, that water is channelled through a network of partially artificial sloughs in the eastern Delta from the Sacramento River to two large pumping plants near Tracy. Levee failures due to earthquakes, sea level rise, or other causes could cause seawater to flood the system, making the Central Valley Project and State Water Project essentially useless.

To address that threat, the BDCP tunnels would sidestep the Delta and shunt water directly from the Sacramento to the pumps through the tunnels, which would run 35 miles buried as deep as 150 feet under the Delta.

Critics charge that the tunnels could carry the entire flow of the Sacramento River during a drought year, leaving the Delta's fish and farmers at the mercy of water managers. The cost of the tunnels, which some estimate could reach $69 billion, has also come in for significant criticism.

The BDCP, which was substantially altered in late April, is the latest in a string of politically and ecologically complex plans to "fix the Delta" detailed in our earlier piece by reporter Emily Green.

BDCP planners maintain that environmental laws such as the Central Valley Project Improvement Act would keep water in the Delta and its tributary streams even after the tunnels are built. Low flows even without the tunnels have killed off significant numbers of juvenile chinook salmon in the Delta ecosystem in the last year, as they did in the pre-drought years 2000-2006 due to excessive water exports from the Sacramento.

Under both the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), environmental assessments of a proposed project are obligated to draft and compare a range of alternatives to the proposed action, so that planners and the public can fairly assess what effect the project might have on the environment.

The current drafts of the BDCP's environmental assessments have names that are as forbiddingly complex as the water politics they seek to fix. A Draft Environmental Impact Review/Environmental Impact Statement (DEIR/EIS) combined the state's assessment under CEQA (the EIR part) with the feds' assessment under NEPA (the EIS part). In April, largely at the behest of California Governor Jerry Brown, who was typically frustrated at the slow pace of approval of the BDCP, the plan was split into an environmental restoration section ("California EcoRestore") and the tunnels part ("California WaterFix.")

As a result of that change, the project's environmental assessments had to be amended to reflect the new changes. Both CEQA and NEPA have accepted protocols for updating Draft EIRs or EISs, and since the BDCP update had to comply with both laws, the new update, which is to be considered as an add-on to the DEIR/EIS, was stuck with the title "Recirculated Draft EIR / Supplemental Draft EIS", or RDEIR/SDEIS. (When your acronym has an acronym embedded in it, you've broken through to a whole new level of bureaucracy.)

For all that complexity, the groups writing this week's letter charge that there's still something missing in the whole set of documents: any consideration of reducing exports from the Sacramento River and the Delta instead of building the tunnels. The tunnel plan would have staged reductions in allowable water exports given the amount of water in the river, but none of the documents consider reducing exports as a long-term strategy to preserve the ecosystem.

And that omission, say the groups, violates more laws than just CEQA and NEPA. "Instead of complying with the Delta Reform Act, the Endangered Species Act (ESA), the Clean Water Act and applying the public trust doctrine," reads the letter, "all of the so-called BDCP alternatives involve new conveyance as opposed to consideration of any through-Delta conveyance alternatives reducing exports."

And with the BDCP now split into separate California EcoRestore and California WaterFix components, there remains the possibility that the tunnels could be approved without any action on the environmental restoration part of the original BDCP.

"The fix is in for the twin tunnels project, which has always been merely a huge water grab with some window dressing. Now the so-called 'California Water Fix' has abandoned any pretense of habitat protection," said Jeff Miller with the Center for Biological Diversity. "This disastrous water-export plan will hand over massive diversion tunnels to corporate agribusiness and lock in the current over-pumping of water from the Delta, decimating our native fish runs and speeding up the extinction of endangered salmon, steelhead, smelt and sturgeon."

The groups say they provided BDCP planners with a headstart on at least one potential export reduction alternative: the Environmental Water Coalition's so-called Responsible Exports Plan, which emphasizes water conservation measures with an eye toward long-term economic development.

Such a plan "would actually create more jobs for California than a large and expensive project like the Delta Tunnels," said Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla, executive director of Restore the Delta. "The U.S. Alliance for Water Efficiency says that 22 jobs can be created for every $1 million spent on water efficiency," said Barrigan-Parrilla. "[T]he tunnels at best would make about 5.5 jobs for every $1 million of public investment, less than half the job creation of most construction spending."

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