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Got tunnel vision? A new water supply tunnel in California.

It is no surprise that California, especially southern California is thirsty. Those needs cannot be met by simply drilling a new well. On Monday, June 26th, U.S. wildlife agencies announced their preliminary approval of Gov. Jerry Brown’s water tunnel project, California WaterFix. California WaterFix will support the existing water supply system (including 50-year old levees), delivering water from the rain-heavy north to the population-heavy south. San Francisco’s average yearly rainfall is 23.7” compared to San Diego’s 10.3’’.

Costing an estimated $14.9 billion to construct, two tunnels forty feet in diameter will sit 150 ft below the ground. Beginning in the Sacramento River, water will travel through the tunnels for thirty-five miles to the existing south Delta pumping plants for the State Water Project (SWP) and Central Valley Project (CVP). WaterFix will not increase the amount of water that SWP and CVP are allocated to pump and divert, but would instead increase the number of intake points, as well as relocate certain points to more environmentally sound locations. These new locations are better equipped to handle the effects of natural disasters and sea level change as well as lessen the amount of pump use needed.

California WaterFix follows Governor Brown’s long fight to revise the current water system, which was put in place by his father, Gov. Pat Brown, in the 1960s. This system of channels has been outdated for a long time, and Gov. Jerry Brown tried to propose a similar project to WaterFix, using canals instead of tunnels, during his first term as governor in 1982. The canals were rejected by a public vote. Today, even amid the concerns of those who live near the delta, the tunnels are gaining traction. It should be noted that this type of water tunnel, though large in scale, is not wholly unusual. Boston uses a seventeen mile long tunnel, and New York City has used water tunnels for over a hundred years. New York’s most recent tunnel, number three, is still under construction, but will stretch sixty miles long and sixteen feet in diameter.

Before construction of the tunnels began, an Environmental Impact Statement was required. These biological opinions were completed amidst concerns that the tunnels would harm ecosystems and endangered native species through their displacement of water. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) analyzed the construction and operation plans for the tunnels, namely the Bay Delta Conservation Plan, and concluded that WaterFix will not harm or jeopardize existing endangered and threatened species in the Sacramento River. Species assessed include the endangered Sacramento River winter-run Chinook salmon and Southern Resident Killer Whales, and the threatened spring-run Chinook salmon, North American green sturgeon, and California Central Valley steelhead.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) issued a finding of “no jeopardy,” but their report is more critical of the project than NMFS, stating that ten of the sixteen species they assessed may be affected by the WaterFix project. The FWS does address the positive effect on Delta smelt and their habitats, which will correlate with California's current EcoRestore program and the 2016 Delta Smelt Resiliency Strategy. As WaterFix develops, FWS will require further consultation and testing to ensure that the current positive environmental outlooks do not change.

California Department of Water Resources (DWR) Acting Director Bill Croyle stated that the best thing that the project can do to ensure the safety of the Delta ecosystems is to “monitor constantly, test hypotheses regularly, adjust operations accordingly, and reassess.” He emphasizes continued compliance with state and federal environmental regulation, assertions which extend to WaterFix as DWR owns and operates SWP, a major partner in the project.

Though controversial, if the tunnels help to better manage water delivery in a water thirsty state, they could be a testing ground for future water projects.

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