C-WIN's Peripheral Tunnels Campaign
“Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”
The Peripheral Tunnels Project
The Peripheral Tunnels Project is a proposal by Governor Jerry Brown and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar to build two tunnels, 30 to 40 feet in diameter, buried 150 feet deep, and spanning approximately 35 miles under and around California’s Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. C-WIN is opposed to the Peripheral Tunnels and is working actively to oppose the project.
The purpose of the Peripheral Tunnels Project is to redirect water from the Sacramento River around the Bay-Delta estuary and distribute that water to San Joaquin Valley agribusinesses and Southern California cities and suburbs. The range of the cost of the project is $20.6 to $68.98 billion. The project is scheduled to go forward without a vote of utility ratepayers or taxpayers.
The Peripheral Tunnels represents a massive hidden tax for ratepayers, taxpayers, water agencies and the State of California. In the event of utility agency defaults, the property taxes in the affected areas and the California budget will be responsible to repay the bonds.
Although proponents of the project state that the project will positively impact endangered and threatened fish populations, the deal for the project contains a 50-year “no surprises” take permit to kill listed species under the Federal Endangered Species Act.
The project will likely require a suspension of both the Clean Water Act and the California Water Code because it will degrade Delta water quality in violation of anti-degradation policies. C-WIN also expects an effort to exempt the Peripheral Tunnels from CEQA. Governor Brown has stated that he never met an exemption from the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) that he didn’t like.
The Peripheral Tunnels Project could have disastrous effects on the fish populations of the Delta. The project would divert Sacramento River water away from the Delta, and leaving a larger percentage of polluted water flowing into the Delta from the San Joaquin River, which is designated as an impaired water body by the State Water Resources Control Board and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
The project would make less water flow into the Delta and would concentrate and increase the residence time of Delta pollution. Because the Bay-Delta estuary contains several important fish species, including salmon and steelhead, the negative effects on the Delta that the project could create would have a devastating impact on these fish species and associated fishing and recreational jobs.
Removal of fresh water from the Sacramento River before it reaches the Delta would allow salt water from the San Francisco Bay to intrude further east into the Delta. This increase in saltwater would impact Delta agriculture and reduce critical habitat for Delta fish such as salmon, steelhead and Delta smelt.
The adverse affects on the fish populations of the Delta from the Peripheral Tunnels will allegedly be mitigated by “creating” improved habitat on 100,000 acres in the Delta in hope of increasing fish survival and growth. The habitat improvements would create seasonally inundated floodplains, subtidal and intertidal freshwater and brackish wetlands, and shallow-water channel margin habitat. However, the National Research Council, an arm of the National Academy of Sciences has warned that the habitat restoration may mobilize mercury from historic gold mining currently buried safely in Delta sediments.
The Peripheral Tunnels Project has been promoted as a project that will protect aquatic species listed under the Federal Endangered Species while at the same time allowing an increase in diverted water from the Delta. However, fishery agencies have been able to determine any fishery benefits from the project so far .
Cost and Reliability of the Project
Not only does the Peripheral Tunnels Project pose problems for the environment of the Delta, but it also raises concerns about its cost and reliability. The cost of the project is a projected range of $20.6 to $68.98 billion, but this amount has the possibility to be even more .
One of the last projects by the California Department of Water Resources, the same department that will oversee the Peripheral Tunnels Project, was the Coastal Branch Aqueduct to Santa Barbara; this was much more expensive and less reliable than was promised by the DWR. Before the 1991 election, Santa Barbara ratepayers were told by the DWR that the Coastal Branch to Santa Barbara would cost $270 million, but the actual construction cost was $595 million and total costs will be $1.76 billion by 2035. Santa Barbara was also promised that water delivery would be 97% reliable, instead water exports to the South Coast have been at 36% of contracted amounts.
This history of inaccurate cost assessment and reliability is very troublesome, especially in the face of the many gaps of information concerning the project. Currently, there is no cost/benefit analysis of the project, no plan for who is going to pay the billions of dollars needed for the project, and no idea where exactly the new water is coming from to fill the tunnels, especially in light of climate change and the likelihood of reduced snowpack. These significant questions have yet to be answered by proponents of the Peripheral Tunnels Project.
Alternatives to the Project
Proponents of the Peripheral Tunnel Project claim that the tunnels would act as insurance against levee failure from rising sea levels and earthquakes . However, the risks are greatly overblown and have been extensively refuted in a letter by Delta levee engineer Robert Pyke.
Instead of the Peripheral Tunnels Project, the current levees around the Delta could be strengthened to better protect water currently exported through the Delta. The cost to fix the levees is an estimated $2-4 billion, much less than any estimate for the Peripheral Tunnels. The levees must be strengthened anyway to better protect critical infrastructure against floods, earthquakes, and rising sea levels. Levees protect not only water transfers, but also infrastructure and Delta communities and its $5 billion agricultural industry.
There are also much more cost effective and locally based methods of providing water supply reliability including recycling, conservation, stormwater capture, and brackish groundwater desalination.
The many problems and unanswered questions about the Peripheral Tunnels Project make it impossible to support. Environmental consequences from the project are devastating to fisheries and Delta communities, despite unsubstantiated claims to the contrary. Exemptions from several environmental laws and regulations will likely occur in order for the project to proceed. The project is also very costly, with a price tag of $20.6 to $68.98 billion that could even turn out more expensive, bankrupting local water agencies with debt.
Many problems are apparent with the project, while other issues stem from important aspects of the project being unknown. For instance, where will the new water will be coming from? With other important questions concerning the project unanswered, there is little information to see tangible benefits from the project. The Peripheral Tunnels Project currently stands as an environmentally damaging, incredibly costly, and ambiguous project that fails to provide water supply reliability and protection of Public Trust assets in California.
 See Fish Agency Red Flag Comments on BDCP Draft Effects Analysis at http://baydeltaconservationplan.com/Libraries/Dynamic_Document_Library/Effects_Analysis_-_Fish_Agency_Red_Flag_Comments_and_Responses_4-25-12.sflb.ashx
 Cost range from: ECONorthwest. 2012. Analysis of the Cost of a Bay-Delta Conveyance Structure: Rate Impacts to Santa Barbara County. July. Accessible online at http://www.c-win.org/webfm_send/244
See our Delta Public Trust Lawsuit Press Room.