Tunnel vision

Sacramento River watchdogs decry diversion plans

illustration by sarah hansel

A project that might make much of the Sacramento River vanish into three giant holes in the ground will not jeopardize the waterway’s ailing salmon and smelt populations, according to new analyses from the federal government.

The Delta tunnels—which would be 35 miles long, cost at least $15 billion to build and be capable of sending much of the state’s biggest river to farmers and urban users—received a stubby thumbs-up from the Trump administration on June 26.

In a pair of Bible-sized online documents called biological opinions, the National Marine Fisheries Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service determined that constructing the tunnels will affect endangered fish and wildlife species only slightly and will not jeopardize their long-term survival. The federal opinions are just one of many hurdles the project must clear before it can be built.

Project advocates, including many farmers and urban water agencies, say diverting the Sacramento River through the tunnels will increase the reliability of water deliveries, which are currently subject to frequent interruption because of environmental laws. The supporters even promise that replumbing the state’s largest waterway could help reverse declines of wild salmon and other fishes. That’s because the tunnels would mostly replace an existing water diversion system in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta that has devastated the estuary’s ecosystem.

But many environmentalists and fishery advocates say that the federal opinions are absurd. They worry that the tunnels as planned are much too big and will make it possible for operators to essentially drain the Sacramento River.

Although the project’s backers say strict environmental standards will dictate how much water the tunnels can swallow up, the tunnels’ detractors don’t believe it.

“We’ve seen during recent droughts how delivering water to farmers always won out over letting water flow through the Delta to support salmon and keep our water fresh,” said Brett Baker, a pear farmer in the Delta who believes the purpose of the project is primarily to serve farmers in the western San Joaquin Valley.

Baker says salty or brackish water routinely pushes upstream from the San Francisco Bay into the Delta—the result of not enough water being left in the estuary by the two giant pumping stations near Tracy, which deliver water to as far away as Los Angeles. Though state water quality standards are supposed to prevent such saltwater intrusion, he fears the tunnels will worsen these conditions.

A Sacramento River diversion has been dreaded by environmentalists for decades.

The project first emerged more than 35 years ago in a slightly different form, as the “peripheral canal.” Jerry Brown, then in his first go-around as governor, pushed strongly for the plan, which more than 62 percent of state voters ultimately rejected in 1982. Now, Brown and several state agencies have brought the project’s fundamental concept back, this time smartly navigating it past voters.

Under the label “California WaterFix,” the project proposes two 40-foot-wide tunnels fed by three intakes near the quiet river towns of Courtland, Hood and Clarksburg. The WaterFix webpage explains that the capacity of the three tunnel intakes will equal 9,000 cubic feet per second.

The tunnels could physically accommodate all of the Sacramento River water during drought periods, which is what worries John McManus. The executive director of the fishery conservation group Golden Gate Salmon Association, McManus suspects that proposed limits on water diversions through the tunnels will be rewritten in the future to accommodate the tubes’ full capacity.

“Remember that they initially proposed to have five intakes on the tunnels [and] 15,000-cubic-feet-per-second capacity,” he said. “The reduction from five intakes to three would be much more credible if the size of the pipes was also reduced, but that’s not the case, which makes me suspect that supporters will eventually come back in the future and add more intakes.”

Even with just three intakes, the tunnels could divert so much water from the Sacramento that the leftover dregs of the river will be too unable to support native species, opponents warn.

As proposed, the WaterFix tunnels would take in water at different rates in a given year depending on how much rain has fallen. In dry years, water managers would rely mostly on the south Delta pumps, which, contrary to common perception, are not going to be decommissioned.

This, warns Jon Rosenfield, a conservation biologist with The Bay Institute, will subject the Delta to the same diversion and flow problems it faces today.

“Everyone knows the status quo is unacceptable and that something needs to be changed, and in principle it sounds like [the tunnels] could be a solution,” he said. “But, the thing is, it’s possible to wind up with an outcome that’s even worse than the status quo.”

The federal agencies’ biological opinions determined that building and operating the tunnels will increase the mortality of winter-run chinook, now at about their lowest levels ever, by about 20 percent. Other endangered species would be similarly impacted.

Rosenfield says this is too much.

“These species are already on their way toward extinction, with numbers going down, so you can’t have some impact to these species and say it’s not going to put them in jeopardy of extinction,” he explained. “It’s nonsensical.”

If the conclusions of the federal agencies don’t make lots of sense to the very few people who have bothered to read the eye-glazing documents, it might be because they were apparently written and released in haste.

“The [Fish and Wildlife Service’s] opinion can’t be considered final because there weren’t enough details about operation of the tunnels,” said Shane Hunt, a Fish and Wildlife Service spokesman.

He says the agencies released their documents now because state leaders want to advance the project. “They want to start construction by next year,” Hunt said.

Baker, the Delta farmer, hopes the tunnels are never built. Yet, he is glad the wheels are finally moving.

“Part of me is relieved,” he said, “because now they’re finally doing something we can take them to court over.”