Final environmental documents for the contentious $16 billion Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta tunnel project were released by the Department of Water Resources Friday, clearing a significant hurdle in the years-long process leading up to construction.
The Delta Conveyance Project would construct an underground tunnel to move water from the Sacramento River down to the start of the California Aqueduct in what state officials say would be modernized infrastructure to bring significantly more water to users in preparation for more extreme wet and dry years as climate change continues to accelerate.
Creating greater reliability in the State Water Project system has been a key factor in support from users south of the delta, who have rarely received their full allocations over the past 10 or more years. Contractors, such as agricultural districts within the Kern County Water Agency, and the giant Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, have been paying for studies of the various tunnel options, which they hope will increase reliability and resiliency of the state system.
But tribes and environmental groups have long opposed the project, saying it is a misuse of funding that would devastate communities and habitat in the delta.
“The plan still largely ignores the project’s impacts on Delta urban environmental justice communities, and how construction will ruin small Delta farming towns, and the natural resources essential to the cultural and spiritual practices of Delta tribes,” wrote a spokesperson for nonprofit Restore the Delta in a press release that also went out on Friday.
The project would intake 6,000 cubic feet of water per second through a 45-mile long underground tunnel. The state’s environmental impact report (EIR) received 7,000 public comments.
A primary concern among environmentalists is the potential harm to native delta species, something they say the final EIR hasn’t addressed properly.
“The final report maintains the same skewed analysis by failing to come to terms with the massive harm this tunnel will bring to the Delta and its fish,” wrote John Buse, senior counsel at the Center for Biological Diversity in a statement. “It’s incumbent on the state to explore reasonable alternatives to avoid this harm.”
Environmental groups have also criticized the high price tag for the project and say that money would be better used on resilience projects, such as more underground storage, in order to decrease reliance on the delta.
State representatives said both types of projects are needed.
“We need to diversify our water supplies,” said Wade Crowfoot, California’s secretary of Natural Resources, in a media briefing on Friday. “We can’t stick our heads in the sand about the fact that our backbone water infrastructure remains essential. We can’t simply shift investments into all those localized sources and expect to maintain water reliability for 40 million people and the fifth largest economy in the world. We have to do both.”
In 2023, the project would have captured an extra 228,000 acre feet of water according to state staff. While a timeline isn’t set in stone, the project is estimated to be completed by 2040. But construction won’t start anytime soon.
“I do empathize with the intensity of the opposition of this project,” said Karla Nemeth, director of DWR, in the media briefing. “The solutions are complex, and we want to be working with those folks, certainly into the future.”