Final environmental impact report on Delta Tunnel slated for release in ‘late 2023’

Photograph by Scott Thomas Anderson

By Dan Bacher

In a recent announcement, the California Department of Water Resources, or DWR, said that it is “still on track” to issue a Final Environmental Impact Report for its embattled Delta Conveyance Project – or Delta Tunnel – in “late 2023.”

No exact date for the EIR’s release was mentioned.

“The Final EIR will describe potential environmental impacts, identify mitigation measures that would help avoid or minimize impacts and provide responses to all substantive comments received on the Draft EIR,” DWR representatives asserted.

The Delta Tunnel is adamantly opposed by most conservation and environmental groups, a coalition of California Indian tribes and a number of commercial and recreational fishing organizations. The governments of all five Delta counties are also fighting the project, along with generational family farmers in the estuary – and many Southern California ratepayers.

Delta United reacted to DWR’s announcement in a tweet: “Hey #Delta peeps, @CA_DWR says it will release controversial #Tunnel Final EIR in late 2023. Guess it will make for great holiday reading while the consultants take their fancy vacations.”

Patrick Porgans, founder and project coordinator for also responded, telling SN&R:

“There’s no need to give the Delta Tunnel EIR credence. DWR has had 63 years to fulfill a legislative and voter mandate that was funded to provide Delta master levees to convey water across the Delta, flood protections, salinity control measures. They took the money and spent it on other project facilities since the state water project was knowingly underfinanced since its inception. It sacrificed the Delta to provide water to its contractors for more water than the project could provide. To make up for the state water project’s shortage, DWR resorted to stealing water from the Delta. DWR has been killing more than one million fish per year in the Delta and has not been held accountable for killing one fish.”

Porgans added, “Before they move forward, DWR should be compelled to provide the mitigations it has failed to provide. This matter should be brought before the State Legislature and the Auditor’s Office.”  

DWR’s massive planned tunnel under the Delta would divert water from the Sacramento River before it flows through the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta so that it can be used by Central Valley corporate agribusiness and Southern California water agencies. Many independent scientists and experts believe this will result in making the current ecological crisis in the estuary even worse by depriving the Delta of water that salmon and other fish species need to survive and thrive. It could also decimate farming in the region.

The tunnel would be 45-miles-long and 36-feet in diameter. It would feature two new industrial intakes on the Sacramento River in the North Delta near Hood (requiring imminent domain land seizures around that town) with a capacity of 3,000 cubic feet per second (cfs) for a total capacity of 6,000 cfs. A new pumping plant in the South Delta would connect the tunnel to the existing Bethany Reservoir on the California Aqueduct.

Delta smelt, Sacramento winter-run and spring-run Chinook, longfin smelt and other fish species are currently on the verge of extinction, due to massive federal and state water exports to Big Ag and Southern California water agencies. The California Department of Fish and Wildlife’s fall midwater trawl survey on the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta hasn’t found a single Delta smelt, once the most abundant fish on the entire Delta, in five years.

In 2021, estimated 19,773 out of the more than 21,580 spring chinooks that returned to spawn in Butte Creek – the last stronghold of spring run Chinook salmon in the Central Valley – perished before spawning. Likewise, a record low number of winter-run Chinook fry made it down the Sacramento River to Red Bluff in 2022. An estimated 158,764 fry (baby salmon) made it from below Keswick Dam to Red Bluff in 2022 compared to an average number of 1.3 million winter Chinook salmon. This was the second consecutive year that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reported alarmingly low numbers of Chinooks.

Sacramento River Chinook fall-run Chinook salmon populations have also collapsed, resulting in the closure of salmon fishing on the ocean and river waters of California. Salmon advocates say the collapse is the result of ineffective water and fishery management by the state and federal governments.

In its latest announcement on the tunnel, DWR also released “new materials” trumpeting the supposed “benefits” of the project, which critics have called a 19th century “solution” to 21st century problems.

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