Gov. Gavin Newsom, diving into one of California’s most contentious water issues, said Tuesday he wants to downsize the Delta tunnels project. The Democratic governor also set out to overhaul state water policy by naming a new chair of the state’s water board.
Newsom said he wants the twin-tunnel project — designed to re-engineer the troubled estuary that serves as the hub of California’s elaborate water-delivery system — reduced to a single tunnel.
“I do not support the WaterFix as currently configured,” Newsom said during his first State of the State address, using the official term for the Delta project. “Meaning, I do not support the twin tunnels. We can build, however, on the important work that’s already been done. That’s why I do support a single tunnel.”
The announcement likely means WaterFix would require a fresh set of environmental reviews before it can proceed, translating into additional delays for a project that’s been in the planning stage for more than a decade and will take an estimated 15 years to build.
At the same time, a single tunnel would almost certainly save billions of dollars for a project, which carries a current price tag of $16.7 billion, that’s had trouble achieving full funding.
Newsom also attempted to strike a more centrist tone on water policy in general, saying “we have to get past the old binaries, like farmers versus environmentalists, or North versus South.” He appointed a new chair of the State Water Resources Control board, Joaquin Esquivel, whom the governor said will “help bring this balance.”
A former assistant secretary at the state Natural Resources Agency, Esquivel has been a board member for two years and will replace Felicia Marcus, a former official with the Natural Resources Defense Council. Marcus frustrated farmers and the city of San Francisco over plans to reallocate water from farms and cities to prop up struggling fish populations. Newsom is a former San Francisco mayor.
Marcus has chaired the water board since 2013 and her term expired last month.
“We are disappointed that he has removed from the state water board Felicia Marcus, one of the state’s best and most even-handed leaders on water issues,” said Kathryn Phillips, director of Sierra Club California. She called Marcus, “a recent target of big agricultural interests.”
With Marcus out, farming advocates said they were hopeful that the board would be more likely to approve water-sharing settlements brokered by former Gov. Jerry Brown’s administration late last year — compromises endorsed by Newsom. Marcus didn’t act on the compromises in December and instead had her board move ahead with reallocating more water to fish. Farming groups have sued over what they call a “water grab.”
“With the change in the board, we’re hopeful we’ll see some movement and more flexibility in meeting our water supply and ecosystem needs,” said Mike Wade, executive director of the California Farm Water Coalition.
In addition, Newsom reiterated his support for a drinking water tax that would raise millions for troubled water agencies plagued with unsafe supplies, including many in the San Joaquin Valley. “Solving this crisis will demand sustained funding,” he said. “It will demand political will from each and every one of us.”
The future of the Delta tunnels has been shaky for months. At one point a year ago, Brown suggested reducing WaterFix to a single tunnel as a way of slashing costs. But last April the powerful Metropolitan Water District of Southern California agreed to double its contribution to the project, to $10.8 billion, putting the two-tunnel approach back on track.
Even so, it wasn’t clear if the two-tunnel approach would survive the transition to Newsom’s administration. Newsom said in early January that he was “concerned about the twin tunnels” but signaled that he still wanted the project to go forward in some fashion. In October, he told the Los Angeles Times that a single tunnel could calm fears that Metropolitan would use the tunnels to siphon more water from Northern California.
Water moves from north to south through a pair of giant pumps — one operated by the State Water Project, the other by the federal government’s Central Valley Project — at the south end of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. Decades of pumping has degraded the Delta’s eco-system and left Delta smelt and Chinook salmon in danger of extinction. Sometimes the pumps work so hard, they reverse river flows within the Delta and push migrating fish toward predators and the pumps themselves.
Because those fish are protected by the Endangered Species Act, the pumps often have to be throttled back, allowing water to flow to the ocean instead of getting delivered to the two projects’ member agencies in the south state.
WaterFix would alter how water flows through the Delta, by diverting some of the Sacramento River near Courtland and piping it underground to the pumps 40 miles away. That’s designed to ease the “reverse flow” problem, protecting the fish and enabling pumping to proceed with fewer interruptions. Proponents say the tunnels would also keep drinking water flowing to cities such as Los Angeles when earthquakes hit the Delta and climate change causes sea levels to rise, making the Delta’s water too salty.
Metropolitan general manager Jeff Kightlinger said he supports the one-tunnel plan even though he believes it wouldn’t work as well as two tunnels. In an interview with The Sacramento Bee after Newsom’s speech, he expressed frustration that the project will be delayed even more.
“We’ve been working on this project a long time, and people like to delay projects they don’t like,” Kightlinger said. “That’s usually the best way to kill a project. In our view, we run the risk of a Katrina-type event and having a huge disaster for our state. The more we push the can down the road, the more exposed we are.”
Officials in Newsom’s administration said the shift to one tunnel will still help the Delta enormously — and won’t delay the project. “A single-tunnel, smaller project provides the important environmental and water supply benefits California needs,” said Karla Nemeth, director of the Department of Water Resources, in a prepared statement. “Governor Newsom’s vision can be implemented more quickly.”
Many environmentalists and local government officials in the Sacramento area have generally opposed WaterFix, regardless of the number of tunnels, arguing that the project would worsen the Delta’s problems. Delta farmers in particular say the project, by siphoning a portion of the Sacramento River’s flow, would leave the estuary much saltier and less conducive to growing crops.
“We are grateful today that Gov. Newsom is burying the twin tunnels,” said Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla of Restore the Delta, a group that’s opposed the project.
“I am skeptical about one tunnel,” she added, but said her organization is willing “to re-evaluate it with fresh eyes.”
Rep. John Garamendi, D-Walnut Grove, indicated he continues to oppose the project, tweeting, “One tunnel down, one to go.”
Critics are suing to block the project; they’re also trying to prevent state officials from securing crucial permits from the State Water Resources Control Board, which has to sign off on the plan to divert water near Courtland. Environmentalists are also fighting the state’s attempt to get approvals from the Delta Stewardship Council, a state agency that must rule that WaterFix puts environmental protection on an equal footing with the goal of improving water deliveries.
The project has struggled with another huge hurdle: money. WaterFix is to be financed by the south-of-Delta water agencies that would benefit from its construction. But even though WaterFix is a joint federal-state effort, San Joaquin Valley farmers who receive water from the federal Central Valley Project have refused to pledge any dollars, saying the cost is too high. With the project reduced to a single tunnel, however, the gap in funding could disappear.
Newsom’s announcement left unclear what role the federal government will pay in WaterFix. President Donald Trump’s administration has shown little support for the project and is working to relax environmental rules in order to deliver more water to Valley agriculture, to the outrage of environmentalists.
Erin Curtis, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, said her agency will “work with the state to determine what a modified project as described by Governor Newsom today would mean for the Central Valley Project.”
Kightlinger, the Metropolitan general manager, said it’s unlikely the project will need the federal Central Valley Project irrigators to pay up if it becomes just a single tunnel. That also means that the farmers won’t get to use the project either, he said.