California WaterFix and Delta Tunnels receive federal authorization to move forward with next steps

By on June 28, 2017
California WaterFix tunnels

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and the National Marine Fisheries Service (NOAA Fisheries), the two federal agencies that implement the Endangered Species Act (ESA), issued biological opinions on Monday that the construction and operations of WaterFix, as proposed, would not jeopardize the continued existence of ESA-listed species. This includes the threatened Delta smelt, spring-run Chinook salmon, North American green sturgeon, and California Central Valley steelhead as well as the endangered Sacramento River winter-run Chinook salmon and the endangered Southern Resident Killer Whales.

Although the biological opinions are a major step forward for the advocates of WaterFix and the Delta (twin) Tunnels, it is not the end of the road of approval steps. The Final Environmental Impact Report (EIR) and Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) released in December 2016 include measures to avoid or minimize impacts that could arise from the proposed project. When the final EIR has been certified through completion of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) process, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife will be able to consider whether to issue an “incidental take” permit for the construction and operation of WaterFix under the California Endangered Species Act. Still, optimistic advocates claim this week’s biological opinions could move WaterFix toward construction possibly as early as 2018.

The proposed project includes new water intakes on the Sacramento River near Hood (in western Sacramento county) and dual 35-mile-long tunnels to carry water to the existing south Delta pumping plants for the State Water Project (SWP) and Central Valley Project (CVP). The California Department of Water Resources (DWR) owns and operates the SWP. Twenty-nine public agencies throughout the state are contracted to receive SWP water in order to serve more than 25 million Californians and nearly a million acres of irrigated agricultural land.

Although the biological opinions released Monday states that WaterFix would not threaten the continued existence of ESA-listed species, the opinions have also recognized the uncertainty inherent in the dynamic ecology of the Delta. A strong adaptive management component is included in the plans where research, monitoring, and real-time tracking of fish populations and other factors will guide the future operation of the new intakes.

“The wisest thing to do in the face of uncertainty is to monitor constantly, test hypotheses regularly, adjust operations accordingly, and reassess,” said California DWR Acting Director Bill Croyle. “In the Delta, we always will be adjusting to improve resiliency and protect the environment. What won’t change is our compliance with the state and federal Endangered Species Acts.”

Opponents to WaterFix and the Delta Tunnels promptly denounced the FWS and NOAA Fisheries announcement claiming the “best available science” about endangered species who depend on a healthy Bay-Delta was not fully considered, and may have been politically manipulated. Restore the Delta — San Francisco Bay-Delta activists – say that the recent proclamation comes despite the 12 percent reduction in salmon smelt due to reduced water flows through the Delta; another seven percent of salmon smelt have been killed by faulty fish screens. They assert that other threatened and endangered species continue to decline as more water is taken out of the Delta.

Earlier this year an Independent Review Panel found serious deficiencies in the Draft Biological Opinion. “The Independent Review Panel report suggested that the biological opinion had serious flaws and that the Delta Tunnels will be terrible for Delta fish—those that live here year-round as well as those just passing through on their way to and from the Pacific Ocean,” said Tim Stroshane, policy analyst for Restore the Delta.

Pending the CEQA and DFW permits the biological opinions will also be considered by other permitting agencies, including the State Water Resources Control Board in its hearing now underway on a petition by DWR and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation to allow for change in diversion points to add three new intakes on the Sacramento River as part of WaterFix. If these changes are approved SWP and CVP would still be entitled to the same volume of water they divert but other diversion points would be added in a more environmentally protective place that also is easier to safeguard against natural disasters such as earthquakes and sea-level rise due to climate change.

On Monday, California Secretary for Natural Resources John Laird said, “After 10 years of study, analysis, dialogue and scientific inquiry, we have come to a shared vision—and feasible approach—for how best to meet the co-equal goals of providing a more reliable water supply for California and protecting, restoring and enhancing the Delta ecosystem. We are poised to take action to better protect our state water supplies and native fisheries.”