Massive California Water Tunnel Project Forges Ahead on Several Fronts

Gov. Jerry Brown terms out in two months, yet the giant twin tunnel project he has shepherded will still be plodding through several permitting steps. Critics say there are better ways to meet California’s long-term water needs.

Written by Cariad Hayes Thronson Published on Read time Approx. 6 minutes
An aerial photo of one location along the Sacramento River that may be affected by construction of the WaterFix twin tunnels diversion project.Photo by Randall Benton, The Sacramento Bee

The spring and summer of 2018 saw frenzied activity around California WaterFix, the latest iteration of a decades-long, on-again-off-again effort to convey fresh water from the Sacramento River to the South Delta export pumps while bypassing the Delta itself. Governor Jerry Brown has made WaterFix a top priority, but as his administration heads into its final months, the project – one of the largest infrastructure projects in state history – still faces a raft of uncertainties.

“Going back to the 1960s, the Department of Fish and Game advised various administrations that the State Water Project had to include a conveyance around the Delta so that the prevailing flow patterns would be more natural,” says the State Water Resources Control Board’s Steve Moore. Currently, pumping from the state and federal pumps at Clifton Court Forebay draws water into a north-to-south flow pattern, rather than following the historic natural, largely east-to-west, drainage from the Sierra to the sea.

In its most recent incarnation, WaterFix – sometimes referred to as the “twin tunnels” – consists of two large, 35-mile tunnels that would divert water from the Sacramento River and carry it under the Delta to the pumps. Proponents say this will protect endangered fish, including salmon and Delta smelt, by reducing the unnatural flows that pull young fish into the pumps, and will also improve water supply reliability in the face of climate change, earthquakes and potential levee failure.

Critics counter that the proposed operation of the new intakes – which have a total capacity of 9,000 cubic feet per second – could potentially capture too much of the freshwater flows entering the Delta, to the detriment of both wildlife and Delta water users. They also worry that the benefits to fish may be nowhere near what has been promised. “This will reduce the use of the pumps by 50 percent, which is a step in the right direction, but it’s leaving us with potential reverse flows in the North Delta, which we’ve never had before,” says Friends of the San Francisco Estuary’s Darcie Luce.

During the summer, the State Water Resources Control Board continued hearings on a critical element of WaterFix, the Department of Water Resources’ petition to add a point of diversion on the Sacramento River north of the Delta (the southern intakes would remain operational). In July, the Board also released its final environmental document for Phase 1 of its long-delayed update to the Water Quality Control Plan for the Bay and Delta, addressing flows from the San Joaquin River and its tributaries, as well as a framework for Phase 2, which will cover the Sacramento River. To many, the plans seem incompatible with WaterFix.

The framework for Phase 2 calls for an increase in Sacramento River and Delta outflow, particularly during the winter and spring months, to restore a more natural flow regime and assist salmon, Delta smelt and other endangered species. “There is a disconnect,” says Natural Resources Defense Council’s Doug Obegi. “WaterFix is proposing to reduce Delta outflows during the winter and spring months, and the Board is saying we need to increase outflows during this same time period.”

WaterFix and the water plan updates have been proceeding along parallel tracks for a decade, says Obegi, and the board has repeatedly emphasized that the updates should be completed before WaterFix was approved. “But that’s not what has happened. So the expectation is that the board will have to impose conditions on WaterFix that will increase outflow and reduce water supply. For a project that already doesn’t pencil out for many of its supposed proponents, it seems to exacerbate the economic problems with WaterFix.”

These maps provide a very generalized picture of flow patterns in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta: in the absence of pumping (left); when river inflows are low and pumps are operating (middle); and with tunnels built and operating (right). The patterns may look different under a variety of conditions. (Image courtesy Amber Manfree, Estuary news)

In addition to new flow objectives from the state board, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service have reinitiated consultation under the Endangered Species Act for Delta smelt, Chinook salmon, Central Valley steelhead and green sturgeon, which could also “produce requirements that are not consistent with what the WaterFix plan describes as the operations of this facility,” says the Bay Institute’s Jon Rosenfield. “Again it’s a cart before the horse sort of thing – if you approve and rally all the money together to build a new diversion and start putting it in the ground, and then overarching regulations indicate that you can’t operate it the way you thought, then the people who invested money might be disappointed in the results that they get.”

The regulatory uncertainty seems to have spooked some potential WaterFix funders, including Westlands Water District, which decided not to invest in it. Nevertheless, Metropolitan Water District (MWD) of Southern California has gone all in on the project, committing to provide almost 65 percent of the project’s roughly $17 billion budget. MWD is also a key participant in a new joint powers authority, the Delta Conveyance Design and Construction Authority, which was formed in May to oversee the project.

MWD assistant general manager Roger Patterson notes that some of the agency’s board members did express concerns about regulatory uncertainties. The range of possibilities didn’t change MWD’s mind about the fix, however.

“We looked at our projections with and without the project and then let them ride on top of whatever regulatory scheme there may be,” he says. “Our overall conclusion was that if the state board required significantly more Delta outflow, the benefit of the project might be a little bit less but not radically less, and we took that into account when we made our decision to invest in the project.”

WaterFix is designed to make the most of big winter storms in a way that won’t interfere with flow objectives, says Patterson. “The project mostly just captures really, really big storm flows that produce way more outflow than what the regulations would require. During those events you can divert full capacity at the Delta and hardly notice it at all in the effect on outflow.”

“The idea that WaterFix will take more water out of the Delta is a common misconception,” says the state board’s Steve Moore. “I don’t think that there is automatically a conflict between changing the point of diversion and increased Delta outflows.” Moore notes that the Board has held roughly 100 days of hearings on changes to the points of diversion, as well as nine days of hearings on the proposed San Joaquin Basin flow objectives. “All of that robust process and public discussion should give folks some assurance that these two items are closely coordinated,” he says.

Beyond the activity at the state board, in July DWR filed a determination of consistency with the Delta Stewardship Council, avowing that WaterFix comports with the Delta Plan. That set off a number of appeals from environmental groups and Delta water users, including the City of Stockton, and agricultural water users north of the Delta. A hearing on the appeals was scheduled for October 24.

On another front, on September 11, the Joint Legislative Budget Committee held a hearing on a 50-year extension of the state water contracts, an essential step to selling bonds to pay for WaterFix, and one which, under the water code, could have ended legislative oversight of it. Critics had lobbied hard for a delay in the hearing, arguing that it was premature, since contract amendments between the water contractors for California WaterFix were not complete, and since a detailed public financial plan for the project, and cost-benefit analysis for two tunnels, had yet to be developed. However, at the hearing, DWR pledged that the extensions would not be used to advance bond purchases and that the agency would return to the legislature with a financial plan for WaterFix. Critics are somewhat mollified by the promise, as it seems to assure continued legislative oversight of the project. “You don’t always get what you want, but sometimes you get something useful,” says Restore the Delta’s Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla. “The ball is still in play.”

A common thread in the criticism of WaterFix is that it seems to be a 20th-century approach to 21st-century conditions, says Luce. “Maybe it’s not the best way to use the money, maybe a better way would be 21st-century solutions like advanced purified water treatment, distributed water reuse or any number of what might be locally and regionally more relevant solutions than transporting water.”

This article was originally published by Estuary News, a monthly publication of the San Francisco Estuary Partnership.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Water Deeply.

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