Feds: Tunnels won’t jeopardize fish

Article from Stockton Record.


By Alex Breitler
Posted Jun 26, 2017 at 12:14 PM

Federal wildlife agencies gave the controversial Delta tunnels a partial approval on Monday, announcing that the $17 billion project to replumb the dying estuary will not jeopardize threatened and endangered fish.

Tunnels supporters called the decision a major milestone after more than a decade of debate. But it is not a blanket decision. More review by the wildlife agencies would be required if the project is ever to be built in full, leading tunnels opponents to call Monday’s action a rush to judgement as water agencies up and down the state look to decide in the coming months whether they will pay their share.

“You can use all the bad metaphors you want — ‘kicking the can down the road,’ ‘putting the cart before the horse,’” said Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla, head of Stockton-based Restore the Delta. “The federal government and the state still haven’t told the water districts how much water they are going to get for their money.”

Monday’s action is not a formal decision to build the 40-foot-wide tunnels. Rather, it is the government’s determination that the project will not drive already imperiled species to extinction.

If state and federal officials do decide to move forward with the tunnels, a blessing from the wildlife agencies is one of the major hurdles they must clear.

“This is really just a first step in the overall implementation, decision-making and construction on this project,” said Barry Thom, a regional administrator for the National Marine Fisheries Service, which studied the tunnels’ impact on oceangoing salmon while the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service studied smelt and a range of other species.

Notably, while officials said the project as a whole will not threaten species like Delta smelt and salmon, they acknowledged that some portions of the tunnels plan are still being developed and will require more review in the future.

So, Monday’s approval is not absolute.

Specifically, Monday’s action covers the construction of the tunnels themselves. It does not include construction of the three intakes along the Sacramento River which would feed water into the tunnels. Building the intakes would require more review by the wildlife agencies in the future.

Put another way, “There’s no jeopardy from building a multi-billion dollar hole in the ground as long as you don’t connect it to water,” said Bill Jennings, head of Stockton-based California Sportfishing Protection Alliance.

Nor does Monday’s approval include a final plan on how the tunnels would be operated, a plan which could still be years away.

“This was a face-saving gesture under political pressure,” Jennings said. “They (the wildlife agencies) said you can build the tunnels but you can’t build the diversions or decide how to operate it until three years down the road. They were under enormous pressure to get something out.”

Two-thirds of California gets a share of its water supply from the Delta. Today, that water is allowed to flow through the Delta to enormous export pumps near Tracy. But that configuration has been terrible for fish, which are drawn toward the pumps and killed there if they’re not gobbled up by predators first.

The point of the tunnels is to funnel some of that water beneath the Delta instead, so that fewer fish are sucked into the pumps. This would also protect some of the water supply if Delta levees fail and saltwater is drawn in from San Francisco Bay.

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