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The Twin Tunnels Are Dead; Being A Force For Good

By Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla     

As most of you know from our recent press release, or from the MSM, Governor Newsom announced yesterday that he does not support California WaterFix, the twin tunnels in their current configuration.  He also said that he believes that new conveyance is needed, a single tunnel.

So, before we delve into what that means for the Delta, our work partners, Delta residents, fisheries, and the Restore the Delta campaign, let’s breathe and be grateful!

After more than 12 years of daily combat with two prior governors, Governor Newsom heard us.  That is huge.  The voices of Delta people, local government agencies, Delta water districts, Delta legislators and lawyers, environmental groups and their lawyers, the environmental justice community from the Delta and Southern California, Northern California Indian Tribes, fishing groups, and the parties working to stop the project through well over two years of hearings at the State Water Resources Control Board and in the public sphere, were heard.  We matter.  Our collective analysis matters.  The voices of our supporters from throughout the rest of California matters.  That is a major shift in the water narrative of California.  For this, we must express gratitude to Governor Newsom.

From here, we also must stop, reflect on what is happening, and think strategically for the future of the Delta.  Expecting a California Governor, who must represent the interests of all its people, to pick one side only in California’s ongoing water battles, is simply unrealistic.  Governor Newsom is setting his own priorities, and in order to get his agenda implemented, he is not going to alienate a sizable and powerful water industry (we call them water buffalo) as he is pursuing noble goals, like making sure every resident in California has clean drinking water. Period.

The Governor’s consensus position does not mean we should be angry, alienated, or even cynical.  What we have is a new opportunity to shape the future of the Delta, and to straighten out the water buffalo, maybe once and for all.

The Department of Water Resources and the US Bureau of Reclamation filed a Joint Petition for the Change in the Point of Diversion in August, 2015 for a twin tunnel project.  A single-tunnel has not been analyzed in front of the State Water Resources Control Board. DWR (following the lead of the Governor) will have to either withdraw the Petition, or seriously amend it, start over on the Environmental Impact Report, and (as smart lawyers tell us) very possibly, dismiss their $11 billion Validation Action and find the least expensive way out of the 17 CEQA/CESA actions (lawsuits) now coordinated with the Validation Action.

While DWR did include some analysis on a large 6000 CFS (cubic feet per second) tunnel as one of the nine options under WaterFix, it has not been presented as the case-in-chief by DWR.  Water districts will have to rethink and revote for the single tunnel option.  WaterFix JPA work will need to be reset.  And Restore the Delta’s smart colleagues will be working to force proper analysis of such a project – assuming that this is what Governor Newsom has in mind – and not a much smaller tunnel. 

It is also important to remember that Metropolitan Water District pushed for the twin tunnels plan last year, rejecting a single tunnel plan, because a single tunnel didn’t pencil out.  It didn’t give them the amount of water they wanted for the investment. In other words, there are many new opportunities to stop a tunnel, and to work for the best outcome for the Delta.

What Does RTD Do Going Forward?

During sworn testimony last April at the State Water Resources Control Board, our policy analyst Tim Stroshane and I were asked, if we opposed all new conveyance.  We answered honestly.  We opposed WaterFix, the twin tunnel project, and would have to analyze future projects. We’re old school; we have to see the facts before we can pass judgement.  We said this under oath, and we will keep our word. We will read all plans and documents put forward with the same critical eye that we have over the last dozen years and share our findings with Californians.  We stick to facts, and we critique where there are problems, half-truths, mistakes, and misinformation in proposed Delta projects. We also support things that help to restore and protect the Delta. So for Restore the Delta, the work continues in many ways as always.

However, during this period of hard-won change, we want to work harder than ever on offering solutions to the Newsom Administration for solving what is perhaps one of California’s biggest challenges: enacting the co-equal goals of restoring the Delta while improving water supply reliability.  We want to make sure that our solutions for the Delta, and solutions suggested by our work partners (inside and outside of the Delta), are analyzed honestly, transparently, and with real data – not the continued fictional narratives woven throughout WaterFix documents and marketing propaganda. Can new, improved conveyance be created without a tunnel?  We say yes. That is why we intend to advocate for a real analysis of our California Sustainable Water Plan, with other suggested plans, side-by-side, with what the Newsom Administration develops.  Process matters. Facts matter. Truth matters.  Let’s make sure that DWR and the Bureau of Reclamation work for all Californians and not just special interest water districts this time around. 

To this end, it is equally important for us to fight the Trump Administration’s proposed rollbacks for ESA protections, pumping restrictions, and water quality standards for the San Francisco Bay-Delta estuary.  To put it simply, rewriting the rules for a water grab weakens laws for stopping a tunnel and makes filling it with water easier to achieve. Over pumping the Delta in the present will finish destroying our fisheries, and ruin water quality for all uses for Delta communities, leading to the proliferation of toxic algal blooms during dry periods. Here again the water buffalo must be stopped.

In conclusion, dance, sing, have a few drinks and celebrate what we all have achieved together in this long fight to protect the Delta.  Then join us in putting on our thinking caps about where and how we can solve the Delta’s and California’s water challenges with our partners throughout the State, while holding to our values, and defending the place we love, the Delta, our home. Let’s be strategic. Let’s work harder than ever to be a force for good.

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