SACRAMENTO — Opponents of Gov. Jerry Brown’s proposal to build tunnels to send water past the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta didn’t wait for the project’s key environmental documents to emerge before criticizing them.
Water experts, an environmental activist and an attorney for the Californians for a Fair Water Policy said Dec. 6 the tunnels will end up costing Central Valley farmers more than they benefit and that the project isn’t environmentally sound.
“It’s evident to most people that the tunnels don’t make any economic, financial or environmental sense,” said Jeffrey Michael, director of the Business Forecasting Center at the University of the Pacific in Stockton. “At this point the beneficiaries of the tunnels will be the water agencies’ officials who are looking at their legacy and construction companies.”
In a conference call with reporters, Michael said Central Valley farmers will be tasked with paying 60 percent of the debt service for the tunnels, which could be $2 billion per year, as well as other costs. He said the costs far outweigh the roughly $134 million in increased agricultural revenue the state believes will result from the project.
“So agriculture’s share of the total cost is more than 10 times … the value it will receive from them,” Michael said. “It’s insanity for farmers to engage in this.”
Bob Wright, senior counsel of Friends of the River, called the project “a fraud on the public and against the law.” He said the tunnels would violate the Endangered Species Act by taking needed water away from fish and that agencies failed to prepare proper biological assessments on the tunnels’ effects on fish species.
Also panning the project were Conner Everts, director of the Southern California Watershed Alliance, and Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla, executive director of Restore the Delta. Barrigan-Parilla said urban ratepayers and taxpayers will end up footing the bill for a project that will benefit rich farmers.
The speakers were anticipating details of the long-awaited environmental impact documents on the nearly $25 billion project, which were set to be unveiled Dec. 9. A 120-day public comment period on the documents is scheduled to begin Dec. 13.
Over the years, the tunnel proposal has come under fire from farmers who feared that construction would ruin their land. This summer, state officials realigned the tunnels’ path away from several Delta communities to a land preserve, raising concerns among environmentalists.
Nancy Vogel, spokeswoman for the California Department of Water Resources, said water districts that depend on the Delta spent $200 million on planning for the Bay Delta Conservation Plan because they believed it is in the best interests of their agricultural customers.
“Otherwise they would face greater losses of water supply in the future,” Vogel said. “It’s true the supplies expected to be yielded will be 10 percent more or less than the 20-year historic yield, but still just shoring up those supplies is valuable.
“When you look at climate change and the continued subsidence of Delta islands, if we don’t start to reverse the trajectory of a downward decline of fish populations, we’ll have a precarious situation for water supply,” she said. “What we’re trying to do is take a keystone supply and stabilize it.”
As for whether the project is environmentally sound, Vogel said the project must assist the recovery of 56 different species, 11 of them native fish, to maintain their federal permits.
“That’s the heart of the plan,” she said. “Yes, when you build three intakes on the Sacramento River and screen them, there are always concerns the screens won’t work or there’ll be a predation problem. But we’ve got screens and intakes of a similar capacity in the Sacramento Valley that are working well.”
Bay Delta Conservation Plan: http://baydeltaconservationplan.com/Home.aspx
Californians for a Fair Water Policy: http://www.stopthetunnels.org