New Delta tunnel project begins taking shape

Caleen Sisk, tribal chief of the Winnemem Wintu Tribe, addressed representatives of the Department of Water Resources and State Water Project (SWP) public water agencies during the first meeting to discuss changes to SWP contracts to accommodate the single-tunnel Delta Conveyance Project in Sacramento.

Opponents of the twin tunnels breathed a collective sigh of relief in April when Gov. Gavin Newsom put a formal end to the California WaterFix project, but that action also called for the assessment of a single-tunnel project in the Delta.

The first major step in that direction took place last week when the Department of Water Resources (DWR) initiated a series of negotiations with public water agencies that participate in the State Water Project (SWP), to amend SWP contracts to accommodate the construction and operation of a single Delta tunnel, referred to as the Delta Conveyance Project. Of the 29 state contractors, five agencies that operate north of the Delta are expected to opt out of participation in the project.

“The Department of Water Resources and the State Water Project contractors plan to begin a public process to negotiate proposed amendments to the SWP water supply contracts,” wrote DWR Director Karla Nemeth in a memo announcing the meetings. “The proposed amendments would describe how the costs and benefits of a Delta conveyance facility, including capital costs and operating costs, would be allocated amongst SWP Contractors, as well as other related financial and water management matters.”

Critical questions regarding the scope of a new tunnel project have not yet been defined. The path the tunnel would take, its capacity, and the number and location of intakes will have significant impact on the project, its cost and the communities in the tunnel’s path. DWR stated that negotiations will not determine project design.

“Essentially, the negotiations are focused on methodology,” wrote Erin Mellon, assistant director for DWR’s public affairs office, in an email to The Press. “The negotiations are not about project yields, nor are they to shape the project. Rather, they’re about creating a conceptual approach to cost allocation and the related financial and water management matters. As you know, Governor Newsom has directed DWR to pursue a single-tunnel solution to modernized conveyance in the Delta. This requires new operational and environmental analysis. The state will build on the work done over the last decade.”

Michael Brodsky, legal council for Save the California Delta Alliance, questions the timing of SWP contract negotiations, stating that meetings of this nature are more appropriate after the submission of the notice of preparation (NOP). The NOP describes the project scope and provides direction for the completion of an environmental impact report (EIR) — a key step in moving the project forward.

“That notice of preparation is going to contain a very carefully worked on and very carefully lawyered description of what the project is,” said Brodsky. “That, in turn, limits the range of alternatives that can be considered in the EIR process. This whole series of meetings with the water contractors and DWR, without really any meaningful public input, is putting the cart on the top of the horse. I wouldn’t even say it’s putting the cart before the horse. It can’t go anywhere.”

Before it was canceled, the California WaterFix project planned for three newly constructed intakes, each with a capacity to draw water at a rate of 3,000 cubic feet per second (cfs). Located just south of Sacramento, the intakes would have taken water from the Sacramento River, and channeled it more than 30 miles south to the Clifton Court Forebay near Tracy, through two tunnels, each measuring 40 feet in diameter and buried 150 feet below ground. From that point, the water would have entered the existing Central Valley Project and State Water Project distribution networks, and then delivered throughout the Central Valley and Southern California. The price tag for construction of the twin tunnels was estimated at nearly $20 billion and the construction timeline stretched for more than 13 years, according to DWR. DWR states on a Delta Conveyance Project question and answer page on their website that the new project will have less capacity than WaterFix and will cost significantly less than WaterFix, but neither of those projections are specifically quantified.

In a prior interview with The Press, Jeffrey Kightlinger, general manager for the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California (MWD), said any project that delivers less than half of Waterfix’s projected 9,000 cfs capacity would likely not be a viable investment for his organization. As MWD previously committed to funding approximately 65% of WaterFix’s cost, it is reasonable to assume that DWR will want the project to deliver enough capacity to hold MWD’s interest.

Brodsky believes the Delta Conveyance Project will follow the same alignment as the twin tunnels and, as such, will do nothing to alleviate the myriad concerns regarding a decade and a half of construction in and around historic Delta communities.

“They started doing geological testing and boring out in the Delta along the exact same route as the twin tunnels,” said Brodsky. “That also assumes you’re going to have the intakes in the same place. All of our experience so far is that it just doesn’t work to have those intakes there, and it just doesn’t work to have a tunnel in the center of the Delta. All of the construction impacts and recreation impact and barge traffic — all of that comes with that route through the center of Delta. In my opinion, one tunnel is one tunnel too many. But if you’re seriously going to look at a tunnel and consider what the governor says about considering the impact to the Delta communities, you need to look at a route around the edge of the Delta, over by Highway 5.”

Newsom issued an executive order on April 29 establishing the water resilience portfolio, and directing his administration to inventory and assess a wide range of water-related challenges and solutions, including a single-tunnel Delta conveyance plan, climate change and accessibility to safe drinking water.

“The governor directed the Natural Resources Agency to inventory and assess efforts to modernize Delta conveyance,” said Deirdre Des Jardin, principal with California Water Research. “Everybody was hoping that they would look at it closely and determine whether this project was really needed. The Natural Resources Agency is delegating to the Department of Water Resources the inventory assessment. DWR is just like, ‘we’re doing a single tunnel project.’”

A calendar of the remaining negotiating sessions can be found here:

For more information, visit DWR’s Delta Conveyance Project page at, Save the California Delta Alliance at and California Water Research at