Tunnel vision: Why do the Delta conveyors need to be so big?

Environmentalists and fishery advocates worry Gov. Brown’s pet project will make it possible to drain the Sacramento River

illustration by sarah hansel

This story was made possible by a grant from Tower Cafe.

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. He 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, Baker fears the tunnels will worsen these conditions.

Baker does not believe fish will see any substantial long-term benefits. “When in the history of mankind has a diversion upstream benefited fish in a river?” he said.

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 web page 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 unable to support native species, opponents warn.

State officials say this can’t happen.

“There are a lot of legal safeguards in place to protect endangered species and water quality,” said Nancy Vogel, a spokeswoman for the California Natural Resources Agency.

But those safeguards barely work as it is. Numbers of chinook salmon have fallen to dismal levels, largely because of sloppy handling of water by state and federal agencies. The Delta smelt, which most Republicans scoff at because it is small and has no economic value, is also about to go extinct in the wild—what ecologists say is a clear signal that the entire Bay-Delta estuary is crumbling.

Though the agricultural community tends to deny it, water diversions have almost certainly played a lead role in the ecosystem’s collapse. Every year, the pumping stations at the south edge of the Delta remove between 4 million and 6 million acre-feet of water and send it to farms and cities. The pumps are so powerful that, when chugging at full throttle, they actually change the flow direction of the Sacramento River, diverting it from its seaward course.

This is very confusing—and deadly—for fish, which may follow the current into the pumps. Tens, and probably hundreds, of millions of juvenile chinook, smelt and other species have met their end at the pumps, which are operated by the California Department of Water Resources and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.

The tunnels have the potential to help fish by eliminating this devastating reverse-flow pattern, explains UC Davis fishery biologist Peter Moyle. By removing the water upstream of the Delta, rather than from within the Delta, the tunnels would allow the water that is left in the river to flow straight through the system and out to sea. “At least [the tunnels project] won’t make things worse, and quite likely it will make things better because then you’d have that downstream gradient of flowing water,” he said.

The caveat, he says, is that the tunnels must not result in more water leaving the estuary than currently goes to help fish. “We have to trust they won’t take more water,” Moyle said.

McManus, for one, does not.

“Just look at how the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation behaved in 2014 and in 2015 in the drought when water supplies ran short,” he said. “They said they’d protect salmon but didn’t.”

Instead, the federal agency drained Lake Shasta’s cold water pool to meet delivery obligations to farmers. In both years, this left too little water in the Sacramento River for adult salmon to successfully spawn, aborting future generations of the fish.

Jon Rosenfield, a conservation biologist with The Bay Institute, doesn’t think the tunnels will operate as smoothly as Moyle expects. In dry years, he says, less water will be taken via the tunnels and more via the south Delta pumps, which, contrary to common perception, are not going to be decommissioned. In other words, in dry years, even with the tunnels, the Delta will be subjected 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 would have a limited negative impact on endangered species. For instance, building and operating the tunnels will increase the mortality of winter-run chinook, now at about their lowest levels ever, by about 20 percent.

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 his agency’s biological opinion should not be considered conclusive and may even be revised later as more information becomes available.

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.

Doug Obegi, staff attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council, says agencies are ignoring the tunnels’ expected ecological impacts. “In both opinions, they say there will be significant impacts, and they basically punt those issues to someone else to deal with in the future,” he said.

Moyle believes the growing need for water in California makes it necessary to build the tunnels. He says he voted against the peripheral canal project in 1982. But that was a different era. “We had no idea how much the population would grow and how much the demand for water would increase,” he 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, because now they’re finally doing something we can take them to court over,” he said.