Big setback for Gov. Brown’s twin tunnels delta water project

Article from San Francisco Chronicle.

Peter Fimrite
Dec. 7, 2018 Updated: Dec. 7, 2018 10 p.m.

A crucial certification needed to build two tunnels that officials believe would help solve California’s water delivery problems was withdrawn Friday, ensuring that Gov. Jerry Brown’s pet water project won’t be approved before he leaves office in January.

The California Department of Water Resources withdrew its petition seeking approval of Brown’s $17 billion twin tunnels plan, known as California WaterFix, which would take water out of the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta and deliver it to users in the south.

The withdrawal of the petition, known as a Certification of Consistency, means the Delta Stewardship Council won’t be voting on the proposal Dec. 20. The Brown administration apparently did not think approval was likely after they were criticized by council staff for, among other things, not providing enough analysis of the effects of climate change on water usage.

The project’s opponents called the withdrawal, signed by water resources Director Karla Nemeth, a victory for fish and the environment.

“It’s a great day for the San Francisco Bay, delta and California,” said Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla, the executive director of the conservation group Restore the Delta, which has been fighting for years to block construction of the tunnels.

“It’s clear that the gigantic tunnels project submitted to the Delta Stewardship Council couldn’t pass the laugh test when it comes to leaving enough water in the delta to keep salmon and other wildlife alive,” said John McManus, president of the Golden Gate Salmon Association. “What you see today is Jerry Brown’s Department of Water Resources finally coming to grips with that.”

The decision Friday may be a reprieve, but nobody believes the battle is over.

“WaterFix will continue to move forward,” said Erin Mellon, the spokeswoman for the Department of Water Resources, in a statement. “We will work with the Delta Stewardship Council to resolve issues related to Delta Plan interpretation and plan to submit a revised certification.”

Council leaders said they are willing and eager to work with the governor and other stakeholders on a resolution that everyone can support.

“The council has been clear in its Delta Plan that we must improve the way water is diverted from the delta,” said Jessica Pearson, the council’s executive officer. “We encourage the department to re-engage with the council in early consultation, and ask all stakeholders to commit to engaging productively to address the issues that were raised.”

It is unclear what kind of support a revised application would get from Gov.-elect Gavin Newsom, who has been less enthusiastic than Brown, suggesting at one point that he would prefer one tunnel instead of two.

The idea of WaterFix is to modernize the state’s water system, ensure reliable deliveries south and help the delta ecosystem. Brown and water officials throughout the state have said the 1,100 miles of levees in the delta are increasingly vulnerable to earthquakes, flooding and saltwater intrusion from downstream.

The problem with the system now is that the big pumps near Tracy used by the State Water Project and the federal Central Valley Project suck in and kill fish, including young chinook salmon and endangered delta smelt. The pumps have also caused portions of the San Joaquin River to flow backward, confusing the migrating fish, according to biologists.

The problems have forced rationing of water deliveries to Central Valley farmers, Southern California water agencies and some Bay Area water suppliers in dry years.

The hope is that the tunnels will deliver more water to Southern California without harming the fish. The biggest supporter of the plan is the massive Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, which recently agreed to pay $10.8 billion of the cost after several other water agencies balked.

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