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California’s water tunnels pitched as hearings begin
The long-awaited hearings on the possibility and fate of the proposed California twin water tunnels have begun and the battles of water rights, endangered and declining fish, funding for the tunnels, the Delta’s fragile ecosystem, the balance of river water vs. salty inflows, farmers with fallowed fields and limited water deliveries to farmers and ranchers are just the tip of the iceberg.
Ostensibly the hearing was focused on whether the state’s water projects can construct three new intakes in the north Delta area to direct water from the Sacramento River to feed into the proposed twin tunnels. Commonly known as the California WaterFix, the twin tunnels hearings are projected to last at least six months.
Proponents of the tunnels praise the plan as the solution to the state’s precarious water delivery system and the answer for the fragile Sacramento-San-Joaquin Delta.
Referring to the current water delivery system John Laird, secretary of the California Natural Resources Agency and a proponent of the governor’s plan said, “The existing infrastructure does not work well – not for ecosystems, not for people.”
But opponents of the California WaterFix and its twin tunnels quickly voiced their concerns regarding the $15.5 billion project. According to the Stockton Recordnet an activist for the area’s Cambodian fishing community shared his concern Tuesday that declining water quality could make it unsafe to consume the local fish. A staffer for the Catholic Charities’ Environmental Justice Project, Yolanda Park, echoed the concern about the deteriorating water and suggested that the very health of Stockton’s residents was at stake.
“There are those who would see the further contamination of our drinking water as necessary collateral damage,” she said.” How can the deterioration of our health be an acceptable side effect?”
The start of hearings this week on the WaterFix and the twin tunnels marks the start of a comprehensive review of the project. Though both sides were well prepared to speak to the issue board member Tam Doduc, with the California State Water Resources Control Board, pleaded with speakers to address only the issue of whether the state’s water-delivery projects should move forward. Doduc asked that both sides stick to the issue as opposed to making the hearing “a referendum on the WaterFix project.”
State and federal representatives opening the hearing told members of the state’s water board that the twin tunnels would resolve the shortcomings in the state’s current system. They contend that these flaws have caused the demise of the Delta smelt as well as the Chinook salmon and imposed unpredictable water deliveries throughout the state.
In short, the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta begins in the northern California mountains where rain and snow-melt feed two rivers that both flows to the Delta and provides water to wildlife, vast acreages of farm and ranchlands and all but a third of the state’s residents.
In the mid-twentieth century the delta was re-vamped to pump water from the southern end of the delta to the state’s agricultural-rich valley and to south state communities. Regrettably, the newly-designed pumping project changed the Delta’s natural flow and altered the migratory route of the Delta’s fish.
California’s WaterFix calls for the construction of two tunnels – four stories high, 40-feet wide and buried 35 miles beneath the Delta – to carry Sacramento River water to pumping stations near Tracy. As proposed by the state Department of Water Resources and the US. Bureau of Reclamation, the water – pulled by gravity – would flow into immense and newly constructed canals and flow to farms and the Southern California region.
Advocates for the massive tunnels at this week’s hearing were plentiful and included Letty Belin, senior counsel for the U.S. Department of the Interior. She spoke with the support of the Obama administration saying, “Now is the time to act. The cost of doing nothing is too great. We believe the (tunnel project) has great promise to address some of the great challenges before us.
Gov. Brown has also recently recruited the assistance of politician and former U.S. Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt to aid in furthering the twin tunnels. Last week the state Supreme Court handed a victory to Babbitt and his team when they gave them the right to begin planning the tunnels via entry through private property.
But opponents of the twin tunnels project remain steadfast in their fight. Senator Cathleen Galgiani (D-Stockton) fears the tunnels will siphon the river water needed to dilute pollution in the Delta. Sacramento County Supervisor Don Nottoli, whose district included the north Delta where the new intakes are scheduled to be built claims that the project “will leave an everlasting scar” on the Delta. Others opponents voiced concerns that the tunnels would hurt agriculture, recreational pursuits, the fragile environment and deprive the estuary of water at critical points.
As the battle over the tunnels wages on, other issues will need to be addressed. Funding for the project remains unclear. Proponents claim the costs would be borne by south-of-the-Delta water agencies. But these agencies are questioning whether to buy into the project when questions have arisen regarding a possible decrease in water deliveries from the Delta because of tighter environmental constraints. However, proponents have repeatedly stated that the costs will not be the responsibility of state taxpayers.
For now, the hearings will continue. The state department of Water Resources will begin formal presentations on Friday for two members of the water board in a courtroom-like setting.
Regardless of these presentations – or other proceedings set to begin in February of next year – the twin tunnels may become an issue for California voters to decide. A wealthy Stockton farmer has qualified a ballot measure — Proposition 53 – that will require voter approval for the state to borrow more than $2 billion to help finance the project, money which the project anticipates it will need.