Plans for $14 billion Peripheral tunnel project draws support, fire

Sacramento-San Joaquin DeltaSacramento-San Joaquin DeltaFarmers and environmental groups remain at odds over plans for the state’s $14 billion “Path Forward on California Water” tunnel project following a press conference today in which Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr. and U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar discussed the project formerly known as the Peripheral Canal.

Environmental groups see the plan as destructive to the environment downstream. Sports fishermen believe it will hurt fish and fishing opportunities.

A group of environmental, conservation and sports fishing organizations, including the Environmental Water Caucus in Oakland and California Sports Fishing Protection Alliance in Berkeley, sent a letter to Salazer urging him to halt plans for the Path Forward on California project. “The state of California is poised to make an enormous mistake and potentially drag the Department of Interior and the American people along with it,” the letter began.

It continued, “Diversion of this water, which is the most pristine source of water to the San Francisco Bay Delta Estuary, would have devastating ecological impacts.”

The groups estimate the project will actually cost between $20 billion and $50 billion and would provide subsidized irrigation water to corporate agricultural operations of the western San Joaquin Valley.

But downstream water users, including the agriculture industry, insist the project could save drought-parched crops on the West Side of the San Joaquin Valley.

However, supporters of the pipeline project say it would actually restore the health of the Delta ecosystem. “A healthy Delta ecosystem and a reliable water supply are profoundly important to California’s future, Gov. Brown said. “This proposal balances the concerns of those who live and work in the Delta, those who rely on it for water and those who appreciate its beauty, fish waterfowl and wildlife.”

Brown called California’s current water system broken and outdated.

Thomas Birmingham, general manager of Westlands Water District in Fresno, called the project a milestone in improving and protecting the Delta ecosystem while creating a reliable water supply for the state. Birmingham said the status quo is not acceptable in the face of water uncertainty.

While supporting the project, Birmingham said questions remain about which water agencies will pay for it. A project outline states that a “user pay” principle will be followed. Costs of the new water conveyance facility and associated mitigation of the facility will be paid through charges to the water users who would benefit from its development and operation.
Habitat improvements would be paid for in part by contractors, with the remainder covered by the state over a period of 40 years.

The initial tunnel plan, developed decades ago, was to divert water from the Sacramento River around the state’s pumping system in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta to the state’s giant pumps at Tracy. From there, it would be pumped southward down the Valley and over the Tehachapi Mountains to state and federal water contractors in Southern California.Delta RestorationDelta Restoration

Now plans call for twin tunnels that would follow basically the same route, but would also make some of the water available for farmers including those on the water thirsty Westside of the Valley.

Supporters of the plan say it would reduce reliance on pumps.

And pumps are a huge draw on the California power supply. In addition, the new system would help prevent water disruptions and damaged to earthen levees if a strong earthquake were to hit the area.

Water contractors would pay to build and use the water conveyance facility. State and federal government would pay much of the environmental mitigation and restoration costs.

The proposed plan outlined during the announcement has eight components: science, conservation, cooperation and governance, finance, adaptive management, sustaining Delta communities, protecting upstream water users and improved water management.

Sustainability is key to the project. Under the plan, state and federal agencies will continue investment in the Delta for flood protection, community development and biological restoration.

In terms of conservation, plans call for improvement of a wide variety of listed species and species of concern under the Endangered Species Act. In addition, new habitat projects will be developed in the Suisun Marsh and Delta upon completion of appropriate environmental reviews.