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Newsom administration advances delta tunnel project despite environmental opposition

Ian James, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

In the face of heavy opposition from environmental groups, California Gov. Gavin Newsom and his administration are pushing forward with a controversial plan to build a 45-mile water tunnel beneath the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta — a project the governor says is vital to modernizing the state’s aging water system.

State officials released their final environmental analysis of the proposed delta tunnel project on Friday, signaling the start of a process of seeking permits to build the tunnel that would use massive pumps to transfer water from the Sacramento River to cities and farmlands to the south.

Newsom and state water managers say the tunnel would help California adapt to worsening cycles of drought fueled by climate change and capture more water during wet periods. They say it would also help address the risks to infrastructure posed by earthquakes and flooding.

“Climate change is threatening our access to clean drinking water, diminishing future supplies for millions of Californians,” Newsom said in a written statement. “Doing nothing is not an option. After the three driest years on record, we didn’t have the infrastructure to fully take advantage of an exceptionally wet year, which will become more and more critical as our weather whiplashes between extremes.”

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Environmental groups have condemned the plan, saying the tunnel would seriously harm the delta’s deteriorating ecosystem and threaten fish species that are already on the brink. Opponents argue that the funds needed to build the tunnel would be better spent on groundwater recharge efforts, water recycling, and stormwater capture, among other projects.

 

Debate over the project has been simmering for decades. Former Gov. Jerry Brown sought a two-tunnel proposal, calling the project WaterFix. Newsom has supported a redesigned project with a single tunnel, called the Delta Conveyance Project.

The plan calls for a concrete tunnel 36 feet wide and running 140 to 170 feet underground, connecting to a new pumping plant that would send water into the California Aqueduct.

Construction costs have previously been estimated at $16 billion, but the state plans to update those cost estimates next year.

California officials say the tunnel’s two proposed intakes on the Sacramento River would allow the system to capture and transport more water during wet periods. State water managers say the current infrastructure makes for missed opportunities when large quantities of stormwater are allowed to flow trough the delta and into the Pacific Ocean during rainy periods, such as last winter.

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