Tunnel tussle

Butte County sounds alarm as state begins environmental review of delta water-conveyence project

Jim Brobeck, water policy analyst for AquAlliance, is skeptical that state officials examining a proposed delta tunnel project will follow environmental regulations to protect Butte County’s natural resources.

Jim Brobeck, water policy analyst for AquAlliance, is skeptical that state officials examining a proposed delta tunnel project will follow environmental regulations to protect Butte County’s natural resources.

Photo by Andre Byik

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The nature of Butte County’s concerns over Gov. Gavin Newsom’s scaled back delta tunnel project was made clear last Tuesday (March 10), when Supervisor Debra Lucero questioned a staffer from the state Department of Water Resources (DWR).

Marcus Yee, an environmental project manager for the Delta Conveyance Project, told the Board of Supervisors that DWR completed all the initial scoping meetings—in which the agency sought input on the proposed project from affected communities—with a gathering just days earlier in Redding, which was the only such meeting in the North State. Comments would be incorporated into a pending environmental document.

Yee said DWR held eight meetings—most in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta area where construction would take place.

“So, you had one in Northern California,” Lucero said.

“Yes,” Yee replied.

“Isn’t that where all the water is coming from?” the supervisor asked.

“I think so,” the staffer answered.

“Yeah,” Lucero said. “Interesting. One meeting. OK.”

The exchange came as DWR prepares an environmental impact report for the controversial water tunnel project, which Newsom last year downsized from two tunnels to one that would divert water from the Sacramento River for use south of the delta. The county had formally opposed the previous twin-tunnels project—known as the California WaterFix—and now is imploring the state to not repeat past mistakes, such as not adequately addressing local concerns regarding groundwater sustainability, the economy and project funding.

DWR will accept comments on the project through Friday (March 20).

The Delta Conveyance Project has been proposed to achieve several goals, according to DWR, which include addressing rising sea levels and other effects of climate change, shoring up reliability of water deliveries south of the delta and improving aquatic conditions in the estuary.

Paul Gosselin, director of the Butte County Department of Water and Resource Conservation, told the CN&R that the county is calling upon the governor to take a fresh look at the delta tunnel project and not rely upon past analysis related to the scrapped WaterFix proposal.

That previous analysis, Gosselin said, showed such a project could devastate recreation at Lake Oroville and, in turn, hurt businesses reliant on the lake. The reservoir, which is managed by the state, could be drained to “dead pool” conditions for a significant period of time to supply State Water Project and Central Valley Project entities to the south, meaning the lake’s water level could dip below the dam’s outtake pumps and leave boat ramps inaccessible.

Additional concerns over the project include potential reductions in surface water deliveries to local water districts, Gosselin said, which could force rice growers to turn to groundwater instead, further stressing the aquifer.

And then there’s the problem of funding, the water director continued. The WaterFix had a price tag upward of $17 billion, and Gosselin suggested the new project may cost nearly the same, which wouldn’t “pencil out” for many water districts. At one point, more than half the cost of the twin-tunnels project was slated to be laid upon State Water Project contractors, of which Butte County is one. Because the county would not directly benefit from any tunnel project, he said, it should not bear any of the cost.

Supervisor Bill Connelly, during the March 10 meeting, echoed that thought.

“It should be at no cost to Northern California—our county,” said Connelly, whose district encompasses the Oroville area. “It should be the people that actually receive the water pay for it for once.”

Jim Brobeck, water policy analyst for the Chico-based advocacy group AquAlliance, sat under the valley oaks at Annie’s Glen a few days after the meeting. He noted the trees need access to underground water to survive, and if groundwater levels fall lower than 70 feet, the trees will be lost.

One of Brobeck’s main goals, he said, is to maintain groundwater-dependent ecosystems, and a tunnel project in the delta could adversely affect ecosystems locally. Brobeck and AquAlliance—as well as other conservation groups—staged significant opposition to the WaterFix project, and he said Butte County government and residents should be opposed to the revised single-tunnel plan.

“I think it’s a public relations improvement,” Brobeck said of the newly proposed project. “This new tunnel is still a huge tunnel.”

The beneficiaries, he said, would largely be irrigation districts that supply water to farms that “feed the world.”

“Approximately 100 farms get 80 percent of the water that’s coming out of Shasta and Oroville and the other reservoirs,” Brobeck said. “Twenty percent goes to the 30 million people” in cities south of the delta.

The water analyst further noted his distrust of the state to operate water infrastructure in such a way that will safeguard local resources. He cited problems at the Oroville Dam complex, the so-called “crown jewel” of the State Water Project. The dam, he said, has cost local taxpayers millions of dollars in enforcement expenses, lost tax revenue and “then in terror when they don’t maintain it.”

“I’m not at all assured that they’re going to follow environmental regulations to protect our natural resources,” Brobeck said, adding that during drought years, priorities change. “The main goal is to make sure that the farms south of the delta get their water.”