Critics Decry Loss Of Habitat Restoration Guarantee From Delta Tunnel Plan

Apr 22, 2015


Credit Center for Lakes and Reservoirs / Flickr, Creative Commons

Critics of the proposed Delta Bypass irrigation tunnels lashed out at the latest changes Monday, which separate the tunnels from protecting the Delta’s ecology. Those “co-equal” goals, part of the original enabling legislation, called for improved water quality and reliability for those south of the Delta and improving habitat for the endangered species living in it.

The move came after several federal regulatory bodies, including the Environmental Protection Agency and National Marine Fisheries Service, signaled broad disagreement over the efficacy of restoration proposals. Specifically, federal agencies could not guarantee that the project wouldn’t worsen already tenuous environmental conditions in the Delta environment over the next half-century. 

“Every independent scientific review found that the claims made for the habitat restoration were unjustified,” said Jonas Minton, a water policy advisor for the Planning and Conservation League.

Without the guarantee, federal agencies would retain regulatory veto power over State Water Project pumps near Tracy, requiring them to slow pumping when warranted. 

Members of the group Restore the Delta attacked Brown for separating the goals. They said money should instead flow to conservation, water recycling and capturing storm water runoff.  

According to the San Jose Mercury-News, Gov. Jerry Brown dismissed the divorce of the co-equal goals earlier this month calling it kind of a technical point.

The official Bay Delta Conservation plan called for restoring or protecting 150,000 acres of habitat. Regulators questioned whether an area that large could be protected, or even acquired.

A recent report by the state Legislative Analyst’s office pegged the project’s total cost at $25 billion. The report noted that bond financing, cost overruns and land speculation could push that number considerably higher. The report said funding for habitat restoration depends voters approving a future bond sale — hardly a given. Critics have estimated the cost at around $68 billion.

Residents and farms using delta water would pay much of the cost. But several water districts have grown less supportive, wondering if the tunnels would be justified if federal regulators could still reduce pumping.

“The water contractors — somewhat understandably — said, ‘Why would we spend that much money if we had no assurances of additional water,’” Minton said.

Roughly a quarter-billion dollars has been spent on planning and studies thus far. 

Federal and state regulators are jointly updating the proposal. A final Environmental Impact Statement is scheduled for release late this year.