Delta Flows: California surface waters are in peril, and all we got is this lousy tunnel.

By: Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla

Tunnel Trauma:

Despite knowing for some time that the Delta Conveyance Project (DCP) was advancing, when the Department of Water Resources (DWR) dropped the environmental impact report (EIR) for the project at the end of July, we, at Restore the Delta, felt like we were suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome. The remnants of CalFed, the Chunnel, BDCP, CA WaterFix, and now the DCP – it is too much. There are so many other issues that need attention to restore the health of the Bay-Delta estuary and California’s rivers, including but not limited to harmful algal bloom research and mitigation, fishery health, habitat restoration, flood control, drought management, preparing for climate change impacts, managing invasive species, heat islands, fire threats, improving water quality for all its uses, and the Bay-Delta Plan. 

In addition, there are numerous infrastructure projects needed to improve the environmental and economic health of the Delta’s most vulnerable communities (from completion of the National Heritage Area, to improved public access to waterways and new recreational opportunities, working WIFI, restored urban waterways, multi-benefit flood projects, and ferry systems that are funded and operated consistently). But instead, we have another EIR to wrangle with — a burdensome process for all Delta communities. Instead of being able to focus on building stronger Delta communities that can adapt to climate change, thrive economically, and enjoy a healthy and sustainable Delta ecosystem, we are stuck with a document for a plan that will further degrade the Delta.

We empathize deeply with those who live and farm in the direct footprint of the proposed DCP because rural Delta residents are living through an entirely different level of angst – which for some manifests as apathy as the conveyance fight has dragged on for decades. Imagine wondering every day if your home will remain your home?  Your job, your job? Or if your family legacy will be wiped out for water exports? The normal reaction would be anger and resentment, or a complete emotional shutdown over the topic so as to be able to cope emotionally.

Imagine how California’s tribal communities, the first people of the Delta, felt when learning that the “Draft EIR Explained” brochure (p. 17) acknowledges that even with mitigation measures in place, Tunnel impacts to Tribal Cultural Resources “has the potential to materially impair affiliated Tribes’ physical, spiritual, and ceremonial experience of character-defining features of the Delta [Tribal Cultural Landscape] and therefore result in a significant and unavoidable impact on a Tribal cultural resource.”

The significance of Delta impacts is secondary for project proponents, including the extension of California’s indigenous genocide. It is all a necessary sacrifice for water exports. We all understand that water will have to be shared from the estuary for Californians to have adequate water supplies. The Newsom Administration, however, refuses to do the hard work of creating a plan with a just transition for communities where farmland will ultimately have to be retired in the San Joaquin Valley, regardless as to whether the tunnel is built or not. 

This clip featuring Secretary Wade Crowfoot reveals that the Newsom Administration recognizes that the retirement of agricultural will happen, but as we are entering our fourth year of extreme droughtaridificationwith continued La Nina conditions predicted, we see no plan for what will happen to agricultural in the 5th, 6th, or 7th year of drought, or how to help farmworker and agricultural communities transition to comparable better employment. Regular seven-year intervals of limited snow and rain will render the DCP obsolete before it is finished being built.

Yet, despite our new dry reality, we cannot find a description of the legal requirement of reduced water reliance on the Delta mentioned in the EIR Brochure, Executive Summary, or various project descriptions. While the EIR contains an inadequate community benefits plan with its own chapter, there is no real plan for a just transition for impacted Delta communities, both rural and urban, should the project advance. Thus, the Newsom Administration is pretty even-handed in ignoring or completely discounting tribes, farmworker communities, and Delta communities, by failing to plan for a just transition for parties impacted negatively by either their water management plans, or limits to the water supply resulting from climate change. The Newsom Administration is designating certain business constituents, big donors, as California’s water winners; the rest of us have to get in line and get out of the way.

Before we expand on what is wrong with this EIR’s impact descriptions, the document’s poor literary quality, or even how to navigate the full 20,000 pages (we count appendices because that’s where the details are found), let’s put the project in context of what is happening in California water.

The Big, Disturbing Picture: 

First, we have large fish kills on the Klamath River as a result of mudslides caused by flooding following wildfires. We make note of this because exports from the Trinity River system into the Sacramento River (notably for Westlands Water District) impact the fisheries on the Klamath River, which is also suffering from climate change impacts, fish diseases, and the same harmful algal blooms that we are experiencing in the Delta. Aggressive policies to mitigate and solve HABs conditions, and creating plans with tribes for better forest management practices to prevent fires could all help to mitigate drought and fire impacts in the upstream watersheds. The Newsom Administration, however, is prioritizing the voluntary agreements and the tunnel, and the emphasis on protecting water exports is delaying work needed on the more important work of saving our rivers and their ecosystems. The urgent climate and drought work we need just isn’t materializing fast enough, despite budget earmarks and restoration plan proclamations that happen every few months. While the budget for California’s next fiscal year does support a number of climate projects we applaud, the Newsom Administration is still behind on these needed changes to river management if anything in our watersheds is to survive.

Also potentially impacting the Klamath is further water depletion from a mini sagebrush rebellion that has been unfolding up on the Shasta River. Third-generation ranchers decided to ignore state orders and to fill their ponds/fields with water that they were ordered not to take. The Shasta River is a major producer of fish for the Klamath system, and the additional flows from the Shasta into the Klamath can provide just enough water in September to support fall run Chinook salmon. Again, the tribes who have depended on healthy California salmon runs since time immemorial will be left harmed – for cattle and a third-generation farming claim.

The Newsom Administration could have created a plan to help ranching families (just transition), while protecting the river. Such an effort was not put into place because small scale farmers are expendable, just like tribal cultural practices. State Water Resources Control Board penalties were not considered stiff enough by the ranchers, who saw no other opportunities for economic survival. While we have compassion for these ranchers, we don’t see them as honest players either. They didn’t give a damn about the already over stressed Klamath system, their tribal neighbors, or salmon runs. They knew the reasons for the water curtailments. Certainly, tribal water rights were of no concern, despite tribes being the real first in time, first in line water rights holders. The rancher felt just entitled enough to take what the water they wanted, and the state failed to protect the environment or to assist ranchers who saw their financial future collapsing.

Now place this systemic failure in context of the massive fish kills taking place across the San Francisco Bay – the other half of the Bay-Delta estuary. From Vallejo to Lake Merritt in Oakland, fish and wildlife are drying in the thousands. The red tide algae, while different from the blue green algae (harmful algal blooms) in the interior Delta, is a direct result of waste -water discharge problems in the San Francisco Bay. In the Delta, our harmful algal blooms are loaded with cyanotoxins which are a public health threat in addition to a fish and wildlife threat. In the Delta, where we have been recording water temperatures as between 80 and 85 degrees for two months in the San Joaquin River system, lack of flow and discharge lead to these dangerous conditions. Cyanotoxins also become airborne and generate or attach to particulate matter. Another water to air pollution disaster is manifesting in California. (We will have data to share on this topic in the near future.)

In the San Francisco Bay, Dr. Jon Rosenfield from SF Bay-Keeper explains the red algae outbreak is related directly to a lack of discharge enforcement and is less of a flow problem. Both algae problems, nonetheless, are tied to California Water Boards not being given the funding/tools/authority to solve these significant estuary problems. Voluntary agreements and the Delta tunnel do nothing to help restore flows or to clean up discharge. (Please help SF BayKeeper with their work by taking action on the causes of the fish kill in San Francisco Bay.) 

So, here we are: tackling this beast of a document for another version of the tunnel, while the Newsom Administration is wasting time and failing to solve serious problems in the present. The tunnel is so 1995 for 2022 challenges.

But tackle the EIR, we must. We are focusing on operations, climate change, water quality, agricultural impacts, some fishery impacts, flood control, environmental justice, air pollution and anything that degrades Delta communities.

How You Can Help:

There will be several official EIR public meetings sponsored by DWR and the DCA during September.

Below you will find instructions from DWR on how to make a three minute virtual public comment at one of the meetings. Remember 250 to 300 words is the maximum number of words for a 3-minute comment. 

Delta Conveyance Project Draft EIR Hearing Schedule and Access Information

Navigating The EIR For Verbal And Written Comments:

  1. Go to the “Read the Document” web page for the DCP where all parts of the Draft EIR on the Delta Conveyance Project are stored and scroll through it. Look at various titles of appendices just to see what is there. 
  1. Read  the two “Fact Sheets” DWR created available at the DCP EIR web site:

Tips for Commenting on an Environmental Impact Report
What is the Draft EIR for the Delta Conveyance Project

  1.  Read “Draft EIR Explained.” This should familiarize you with the alternatives generally from the brochure. It is about 28 pages long, written to be publicly accessible. Then pick chapters to read for which you have interest or understanding. 

In the weeks ahead, we will be sharing with you important points for your consideration to help you develop your own comments. But we encourage the public to read through portions of the EIR for themselves. 

Whose Delta? Water For Whom? For What?

A government official who works on Delta issues, stated recently at a public meeting that the public didn’t need to fully read or understand the EIR. What utter nonsense. While the average working person cannot read and comment on every topic within the EIR, such an attitude assumes the public should not be engaged in water and climate planning in California. We pay for water management planning through our water rates and taxes, and with our health, wealth, and well-being. Water is a public trust resource. It is time to let the Newsom Administration know what your priorities are for the Delta, and the management of California’s watersheds. Heat days can become study days. Let’s do our collective best to protect our Delta and watersheds for future generation.

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  • (209) 851-0270

515 E Main St
Stockton, CA 95202

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, we have temporarily closed our physical office. This address is a mail-only address.

Media Inquiries

Contact: Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla
  • (209) 479-2053.