By Vicky Boyd

Although newly elected Gov. Gavin Newsom has called for downsizing the state’s twin tunnels project to a single conveyance, many of the same concerns with the larger proposal remain with the scaled-down version, say Farm Bureau leaders.

“It’s kind of like the announcement on the (high-speed) train,” said David Strecker, San Joaquin Farm Bureau, first vice president and a Delta farmer. “He says he’s downsizing the train, but they’re still going to complete the project from Merced to Bakersfield. They’re still going to waste a ton of money trying to say they’re saving money.”

Building even a single tunnel still won’t solve the issues in the Delta, which include water quality and struggling fisheries, to name a few, Strecker said. And tunneling under the Delta to lay the infrastructure for a single conveyance will still cause irreparable damage to the region’s fragile ecosystem.

“It’s just a cut with 10 stitches instead of 15 stitches,” he said. Rather, the state should look at projects that will have tangible benefits to the Delta, such as more water storage, a through-Delta conveyance, dredging and improving fish habitat.

“There are so many more things that could be done and should be done before you consider something like the tunnel,” Strecker said.

SJFB executive director Bruce Blodgett agreed.

“We’re taking the same position. They need to change the project and where they’re going to get the water from,” he said. “Just changing the amount of water they’re going to divert doesn’t address loss of ag land and doesn’t’ address salt water intrusion.”

Newsom made the announcement on both the high-speed rail and twin tunnels projects during his Feb. 12 State of the State address. “I do not support the Water Fix as currently configured. Meaning, I do not support the twin tunnels,” he said. “But we can build on the important work that’s already been done. That’s why I do support a single tunnel.”

The twin tunnels 

The $17 billion twin tunnels project, dubbed the California WaterFix by the state, includes two 40-foot diameter tunnels that would divert Sacramento River water from near Courtland. Each tunnel could carry up to 3,000 cubic feet per second and run under Staten, Bouldin, Mandeville, Bacon and Victoria islands in the Delta.

After the 35-mile-long journey, the water would dump into the proposed New Byron Tract Forebay just west of the current Clifton Court Forebay. From there, it would be transferred to the Banks Pumping Plant for conveyance via the California Aqueduct to users farther south.

How a new one-tunnel project will be configured is yet to be determined, but the Department of Water Resources will follow the governor’s lead, said Erin Mellon, DWR assistant director of public affairs. Among the governor’s criteria are the tunnel has to be climate resilient, earthquake proof, preserve Delta fisheries, and meet the needs of cities and farms.

“We’re going to build on the studies and research that have been done the last dozen years as we move forward,” she said. “The EIR-EIS did look at smaller projects with one tunnel as one of the many alternatives.”

But Blodgett pointed out that some of those studies date back as far as 2006 and are likely outdated. Many of the alternatives also were never up for consideration, even back then, he said.

The path from 18 alternatives

The draft environmental impact statement/environmental impact report released in December 2016 outlined 18 alternatives – including no project, also known as the status quo. During the environmental review process, those 18 were whittled down to the single Alternative 4A, which included two tunnels but with three diversions and much higher flows. 

Those were subsequently reduced to two diversions near Courtland and flows of up to 3,000 cfs per tunnel.

In February 2018, the state further modified the project to be built in phases, with two diversions, one main tunnel, one intermediate forebay and one pumping station as part of stage 1. Stage 2 would include a third diversion, a second main tunnel and a second pumping station.

New information and modeling also would be considered as the state looks at a single conveyance, so the project won’t be starting from scratch, Mellon said.

Newsom has not been shy during his campaign and now in office about voicing his support to aid struggling salmon and other fisheries. What concerns Blodgett is how that will be accomplished.

“It gets back to the flows again,” Blodgett said. “We have some concerns that the two problems have been linked together, and it sounds like this governor wants to continue to link them together.”

He was referring to the unimpaired flows proposal the State Water Board approved in late 2018 under the belief it would aid Delta fisheries. The measure, currently halted by litigation, would have required unimpaired flows of 40 percent in the San Joaquin River and its tributaries between February and June.

The California Farm Bureau, along with several water districts and water agencies, are involved in a number of lawsuits challenging the mandated flows. The specific legal points raised depend on the individual suits. 

Instead of unimpaired flows, many litigants favor a more collaborative, integrated approach that includes pulse flows, spawning habitat improvements and reducing non-native predators in the Delta.