Sierra Club’s Position on the Delta (Twin) Tunnels

Dear Larry,

Every so often, I’ll receive a call or email from a Sierra Club member asking what Sierra Club California’s position is on the proposed Delta tunnels.

The number of inquiries has increased lately because the tunnels have been in the news more than usual.

Let me say at the top: Sierra Club California opposes construction of the two, four-story-high, 35-mile-long underground tunnels to move water from rivers north of the San Francisco Bay Delta to farms and communities south of the Delta.

Largest estuary on the west coast of the continentThe tunnels will divert fresh water away from the 1,100-square-mile Delta, which is an essential ecosystem for hundreds of species of fish, birds and other wildlife.

You can find details about our position on our website, including a white paper produced by our water committee that outlines alternative ways to ensure Californians have clean water and a sound environment without the tunnels.

The latest developments haven’t changed our position. If anything, they have reinforced our view that the expensive (at least $17 billion) twin tunnels represent an outdated approach to solving California’s water challenges, especially in an era of climate change.

The proposal will tie the state’s water system — and ratepayer dollars — to a project that will cause significant environmental harm without delivering significant new water or solving water availability problems around the state. It won’t make our system nimble enough to adapt to the rapidly changing precipitation patterns that climate change delivers.

Following the effort to build a bloated piece of engineering to divert Delta-bound water is about as easy as keeping the characters straight in a classic Russian novel. But if you want to dive into what’s happening now, there are three key things to know.

First, in June, two federal agencies released long-awaited biological opinions about the impacts of the project construction on wildlife and approved permits for the tunnels’ construction. The agencies essentially ignored the best available science that shows that species would likely go extinct. Some of our allies immediately filed lawsuits challenging the agencies’ permit approval.

Second, in July, the California Department of Water Resources — one agency that is responsible for building the tunnels — announced that the environmental impact report required by state law was finished. That represents a significant step designed to clear the way for tunnels construction.

But the reviews didn’t adequately consider a range of issues, including alternatives to the tunnels. Watch for news of lawsuits about that.

Third, in September, the boards of key water wholesalers who have been promoting the tunnels will vote on whether to pony up at least $15 billion to pay for the project. One of those is the Westlands Water District, which represents many large farming corporations in the western San Joaquin Valley. Another is the Metropolitan Water District (MWD), which serves urban and suburban water retailers in Southern California.

The MWD vote is slated for September 26. The district staff has recommended the 38 board members — representing 26 different retail water agencies — commit to raising water rates to finance a project whose details of operation and real costs are still shrouded in mystery.

That’s kind of like asking someone already struggling with debt to take out a giant 5-year-balloon-payment loan on a 7,000-square-foot fixer-upper, sight unseen, a month before the housing market crashes. It’s not likely to have a happy ending and the ratepayers — people like you — and the environment will suffer while the agency heads walk away unscathed.

The list of recent and upcoming events doesn’t end there. But this is enough to give you a flavor of the current complexity of the public elements of the distraction known as the tunnels.

The effort to stop the tunnels and force water agencies to update their approach has been multi-layered and spread around the state. Local chapter volunteers have been heroes as they make sure the environment has a voice at local water agencies contemplating positions on the tunnels.

If you want to help fight the tunnels and become a local hero, let us know by filling out our volunteer form online. Be sure to note on the form that you’re interested in fighting the tunnels.

CHP_SCC_Kathryn Phillips Signature
Kathryn Phillips