Ag Today July 24, 2017

State formally approves Delta tunnels

By Alex Breitler
Record Staff Writer

Posted Jul 21, 2017 at 4:01 PM Updated Jul 21, 2017 at 6:12 PM

State officials on Friday formally decided to build the $17 billion Delta tunnels, setting the stage for a flurry of lawsuits over the next month.

Friday’s decision was no surprise. The state Department of Water Resources has been pursuing the project for more than a decade.

“I think it’s been a foregone conclusion for many years,” said Stockton attorney Dante Nomellini, who represents central Delta farmers.

Friday marks the first time since the old peripheral canal days of the 1970s and ’80s that a formal decision has been made to replumb the Delta by siphoning away a share of its freshwater flow. The canal, which would have been larger than the tunnels but would have served effectively the same purpose, was defeated by voters in a 1982 referendum.

Nomellini and others opposing the tunnels now have 30 days to challenge the state’s voluminous environmental impact reports under the California Environmental Quality Act.

John Herrick, a Stockton attorney representing farmers with the South Delta Water Agency, said his group will also file suit sometime during that window of time.

“We can’t read their minds, but the state is acting like they’re going to do this,” Herrick said Friday. “They’re getting things done quickly, trying to move things forward, trying to get this done.”

Stockton-based Restore the Delta said Friday that it too intends to sue, calling the tunnels plan “deeply flawed.”

Other environmental groups have already challenged a separate determination by federal wildlife agencies that the tunnels will not drive fish species to extinction. But Friday’s action opens the door for much more litigation.

In a prepared statement on Friday, Cindy Messer, acting director of Water Resources, called the decision to build the tunnels an “important benchmark in moving California towards a more reliable water supply.” State officials say the tunnels will help to restore more natural flow patterns in the Delta and cause fewer endangered fish to get sucked into the existing water export pumps near Tracy.

“Our state is now closer to modernizing our aging water delivery system in a way that improves reliability and protects the environment,” Messer said.

Critics say the diversion of some freshwater before it flows through the Delta will doom the largest estuary on the West Coast of the Americas.

In a related action on Friday, the state filed papers at Sacramento County Superior Court seeking a judge’s affirmation that the state has authority to issue revenue bonds to finance construction of the tunnels, which officials said could begin as soon as 2018.