Is the Trump administration opposed to the Delta tunnels, Gov. Jerry Brown’s plan to remake the troubled estuary and improve water deliveries to the southern half of the state?
For a while Wednesday, it certainly looked that way. A top spokesman for the U.S. Interior Department, Russell Newell, told The Associated Press that “the Trump administration did not fund the project and chose to not move forward with it.”
Although officials have been downplaying the U.S. government’s potential involvement in the project for months, outright opposition from President Donald Trump could have been fatal to Brown’s $17.1 billion tunnels plan. The Interior Department needs to sign off on environmental reviews before the project can go forward.
Tunnels opponents, from Congress to the environmental community, seized on the statement as a sign of further trouble for the project, which is already struggling to gain financial support and might have to be downsized.
Never miss a local story.
Sign up today for a free 30 day free trial of unlimited digital access.
“It will make it extremely difficult to build the tunnels,” said Rep. John Garamendi, D-Walnut Grove, who opposes the project. “The future of the tunnels is in serious doubt.”
As it turned out, the Trump administration said it isn’t trying to kill the project.
Newell told The Sacramento Bee that the federal government is still working on the environmental issues related to the Delta tunnels.
However, he said the feds won’t help pay for the tunnels – mirroring a stance the federal government has held for months.
“While the Department of the Interior shares the goals of the state of California to deliver water with more certainty, eliminating risks to the California water supply, and improving the environment, at this time, the Department under the current state proposal does not expect to participate in the construction or funding of the CA WaterFix,” Newell said in a statement later in the day.
In a sense, the confusion over the Trump administration’s statements is a testament to the passion and controversy generated by the project, officially known as California WaterFix.
Brown wants to divert a portion of the Sacramento River’s flow through a pair of underground tunnels in order to alter how water moves through the Delta. The governor says the tunnels would improve the Delta’s ecosystem, protect endangered fish species and enable the massive water pumps at the south end of the Delta to operate more reliably.
Environmentalists, Delta farmers and others are adamant that the tunnels would further degrade the Delta’s troubled ecosystem, in part by reducing the amount of fresh Sacramento River water flowing through the estuary. Project opponents, including multiple local governments in the Sacramento area, are suing to block the project on the grounds that it violates California’s environmental law.
Conceived a decade ago, WaterFix would be financed by the south-of-Delta water agencies that get deliveries from the State Water Project or its federal counterpart, the Central Valley Project.
However, the project has been faltering for weeks because of water agencies’ reluctance to commit financially. That’s due largely to a complicated cost-allocation formula imposed by the Bureau of Reclamation, which runs the Central Valley Project and is part of the Interior Department.
The bureau says the tunnels aren’t an official Reclamation project and, as a result, the federal government won’t contribute to the construction costs and its Central Valley Project customers are free to opt out. What’s more, it told one major group of customers that, because of historic water rights, its supplies are so secure that it probably doesn’t need the tunnels anyway. With those customers essentially exempted from payment, the costs have shot up for every other Central Valley Project customer – and none of them has agreed to participate. That leaves a funding gap of $6 billion or more in Brown’s $17.l billion plan.
Related stories from The Sacramento Bee
In recent weeks, as funding from Central Valley Project water agencies has collapsed, the Brown administration has talked about scaling back the project and funding it solely with dollars from State Water Project customers.
Most of the major state customers have agreed to participate, although some have made firmer commitments than others. In contrast with the feds’ approach, Brown has said every state water district south of the Delta must help pay for WaterFix – or find another customer to take their place. The largest single commitment so far came from the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, which agreed to spend more than $4 billion building the tunnels.
Metropolitan, which has been one of the leading cheerleaders for WaterFix, declined to comment on Newell’s statement.
Courtland farmer Russ van Loben Sels describes how the local landscape could change if the twin tunnels plan comes to fruition.Randall Benton The Sacramento Bee