Challenging the tunnels

Butte County, AquAlliance sue for better environmental review

Barbara Vlamis, executive director of AquAlliance, says the twin tunnels could “de-water” our region.

Barbara Vlamis, executive director of AquAlliance, says the twin tunnels could “de-water” our region.

CN&R file photo

The twin tunnels project, aka California WaterFix, seems to have been on a fast track to approval, opponents agree, leading to dozens of lawsuits filed against the Department of Water Resources on Monday (Aug. 21), the last day to take legal recourse.

“This is one of the larger environmental cases in recent memory,” said Bruce Alpert, Butte County counsel. “It certainly has one of the biggest impacts statewide.”

The county filed suit Monday, as did local water advocacy group AquAlliance. Both argue that the DWR, which is overseeing the project, failed to comply with the California Environmental Quality Act in its assessment of potential impacts to our region. They aren’t the only ones. “There are over 54 plaintiffs right now,” Alpert said. “There were so many people filing on Monday, they were handing out numbers in the courthouse.”

California WaterFix, as the twin tunnels project is now being called, originated as a peripheral canal plan back in the 1980s, during Jerry Brown’s first stint as governor. That plan failed, by vote of the people, in 1982. It resurfaced in a slightly different form during Brown’s current administration. The twin, 40-foot-wide Delta tunnels would be 35 miles long, cost at least $15 billion to build and be capable of sending much of the Sacramento River south. It will not be on the ballot.

“The only recourse for the public now is in the court,” said Barbara Vlamis, executive director of AquAlliance and longtime local environmental advocate. “In our region, the biggest potential impact is it would facilitate the state using this area like a colony for water, that we’re just an area of origin to supply water for other regions. It would potentially de-water our region over time.”

Alpert agreed, saying the county’s lawsuit includes similar concerns. “There’s a threat to our area-of-origin rights, a threat to our district and surface water rights,” he said. “The more water they pull out of the Sacramento River, the less recharge we have up here; the more surface water they pull, the more we have to use groundwater. But our water is really not all limitless.

“You can destroy your water resources,” he added, “which they’ve already done in the San Joaquin Valley.”

What’s more, Alpert said, is the California WaterFix environmental review doesn’t take into account the possibility of the Sites Reservoir also moving forward. That project also would pull water from the Sacramento River, Alpert said, so it should be considered as an additional impact.

“There are spots where Sacramento River water would be taken for Sites above us, and for the tunnels below us,” he said. “Under CEQA law, it’s a reasonable probability that [Sites] is going forward, so it should be considered as an additional impact. Because, if you put Sites together with the twin tunnels, you have a whole different thing.”

With these major concerns noted, Alpert and Vlamis each said that the reason they filed a lawsuit was to call for greater environmental review. These are potential impacts that weren’t even included in the study, they said. Both the county and AquAlliance have expressed concerns since the beginning, submitting comments throughout the draft environmental impact process dating back at least to 2015.

“They didn’t respond to all of our comments, they didn’t perform additional studies that we requested for our area,” Alpert said. “[The project is] being pushed through very quickly; they’re using every procedural trick that they can to move this forward, trying to streamline everything to get it done quickly.”

The lawsuits, filed by entities ranging from local governments to environmental groups to fishermen, likely will be lumped together by the court, Alpert said, and the process could take a very long time. In reading through the county’s suit, it was clear that there are hurt feelings going back as far as the building of the Oroville Dam.

“Butte, one of the northernmost [State Water Project] water contractors, has long borne extraordinary risks and uncompensated costs as the host county of DWR’s Oroville facilities,” it reads. “Butte is the location of Lake Oroville, the SWP’s ‘crown jewel,’ as well as creeks, rivers and groundwater basins that provide the lifeblood for agriculture, the economy and the environment in the northern Sacramento Valley.”