SACRAMENTO — Gov. Gavin Newsom on Thursday drove the final nail into the coffin of the most controversial water project in California in more than 30 years: Gov. Jerry Brown’s $19 billion plan to build two massive tunnels under the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta to make it easier to move water from the north to the south.
The Newsom administration announced it is withdrawing permit applications that the Brown administration had submitted to the State Water Resources Control Board, California Department of Fish and Wildlife, and several federal agencies.
“A smaller project, coordinated with a wide variety of actions to strengthen existing levee protections, protect Delta water quality, recharge depleted groundwater reserves and strengthen local water supplies across the state will build California’s water supply resilience,” said Natural Resources Secretary Wade Crowfoot in a statement.
Newsom first announced the change in policy in January, during his first state-of-the-state speech.
Such a scaled-back project could cost roughly $10 billion, according to estimates done by the state and water agencies last year. The decision was largely a victory for environmental groups and Delta political leaders, and a setback for Los Angeles water officials who had supported the plan and promised to pay for most of it.
“It’s great to hear the destructive Delta twin tunnels project has been abandoned,” said Jeff Miller, a senior conservation advocate with the Center for Biological Diversity. “California should focus on restoring the vital Delta ecosystem and its native fish instead of diverting more water.”
Los Angeles water officials, who were unhappy with Newsom’s move, were stoic Thursday.
“The status quo in the Delta is simply not an option,” said Jeff Kightlinger, general manager of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, which has 19 million customers. “New conveyance is essential. The current system is already outdated and vulnerable; climate change will further stress it with a future of sea level rise and increasingly intense floods and droughts.”
The original Delta tunnels plan called for building two tunnels, each 35 miles long and 40 feet high, under the Delta, the vast system of channels and sloughs between the Bay Area and Sacramento where the state’s two largest rivers, the Sacramento and the San Joaquin, meet before flowing into San Francisco Bay.
The original idea was that the tunnels would take water from the Sacramento River, south of Sacramento, and move it to the huge pumps near Tracy that are part of the State Water Project and Central Valley Project. That, supporters said, would reduce reliance on the pumps and make water deliveries more reliable by protecting endangered salmon, smelt and other fish, which can be killed by the pumps. Court rulings limit water pumping when the fish are migrating near the pumps.
But critics called the tunnels plan a huge boondoggle that would eventually allow large agribusiness interests in the San Joaquin Valley, and urban users in Los Angeles, to take more water out of the Delta. They called instead for more local water solutions, including conservation, water recycling, increased groundwater storage and storm water capture.