New details of controversial tunnel plan to emerge by end of month

New details of controversial tunnel plan to emerge by end of month

Debra Kahn, E&E reporter

Published: Tuesday, April 7, 2015

California and federal officials are planning to release new details within weeks of their controversial plan to tunnel underneath the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta.

The Bay Delta Conservation Plan, which has gone through several iterations over the past eight years of work between California and federal agencies, would entail building two massive tunnels underneath the delta in order to improve water deliveries to the 25 million Californians and 3 million acres of farmland that depend on the region’s existing system of pumps and canals.

Rumors have circulated in recent days that to ease the permitting process, the state Department of Water Resources plans to separate the tunnels from associated restoration of tens of thousands of acres of delta habitat. Separating them would eliminate the need for a sweeping, 50-year federal permit that has proved tricky, as federal agencies have heavily criticized the plan for its lack of specificity and potential to degrade water quality (Greenwire, April 6).

Without specifying the changes, state officials said they would release some details later this month.

“We have invested eight years of exhaustive work producing a draft plan, including four years of hard-earned experience operating the State Water Project and Central Valley Project during historic drought,” DWR Director Mark Cowin said in a statement. “We now have a much better understanding of the tradeoffs associated with possible solutions and much greater sense of urgency. We will revise the plan and share it shortly.”

As a reason for the changes, Cowin also cited public comments on the current draft of the plan, which include criticisms from U.S. EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers (Greenwire, March 13).

Officials have struggled to balance the tenets of water supply and environmental protection over their eight years of planning. They must satisfy both environmental and local delta interests that balk at the delta losing any more water, as well as the water contractors that would be paying for the tunnels with the expectation that they receive more water than they have in recent years.

Without the project, they say, the state’s water supply will remain vulnerable to cutbacks to protect endangered species as well as earthquakes that could crumble the delta’s mazelike system of levees, sending seawater inland.

Another factor contributing to the revamp is the fact that funding for habitat restoration was stripped out of last year’s water bond, one delta expert said. The $7.5 billion measure that voters passed in November replaced an earlier $11 billion bond proposal that contained money for the BDCP (Greenwire, Aug. 6, 2014).

“All of the funding for habitat restoration linked to BDCP was stripped out of the bond measure and the contractors are not likely to be willing to put up more funds than the $14 billion or so projected to be needed for the isolated facilities themselves — which will drive another dynamic — particularly during the extended drought,” said Sunne McPeak, president of the Delta Vision Foundation, a group created by former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) to revive broad debate on how to repair the delta.

The group came up with the state’s current “coequal” policies of restoring the delta ecosystem and improving water supply reliability — a tenet that McPeak emphasized still needs to be met.

“The key components of the solution have to be linked legally to one another (be legally enforceable to be implemented so that the public is not just relying on a political promise),” she said.

California signaled it was still working closely with federal officials, who as enforcers of the Endangered Species Act, Clean Water Act and other federal laws would have to sign off on the project’s environmental impact statement.

“The federal lead agencies have been working closely with state agencies and their consultants to ensure that the supplemental draft EIS addresses the public comments we have received on the original draft document,” Bureau of Reclamation spokeswoman Erin Curtis said. “We expect to issue a public Notice of Intent on the supplemental draft EIS in the coming weeks, and the supplemental document will follow sometime after that.”

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