As plans for a single tunnel in the Delta take shape, a new committee has been created to inform planners of the Delta Conveyance Project’s (DCP) expected impacts across a broad range of interests.
The appointed members of the Stakeholder Engagement Committee (SEC) were announced last month by the board of the Delta Conveyance Design and Construction Authority (DCA), and the first meeting of the group was planned for Wednesday, Nov. 13, in Isleton. The DCA was formed in May 2018 to manage the design and construction of what was then the California WaterFix, and is overseen by the California Department of Water Resources.
“The Stakeholder Engagement Committee will give a much-needed voice to the opinions, expertise and concerns of Delta residents, business owners and other stakeholders as the DCA explores engineering and design proposals,” said Sarah Palmer, SEC chair and DCA board member. “The DCA is committed to transparent and robust outreach with the sharing of ideas that will incorporate local knowledge, history and geography into a world-class engineering project that respects the Delta as a place, home and ecosystem. We cannot do this without the Delta stakeholders. Our goal is to provide a project that will benefit the lives of the tens of millions of Californians who rely on the Delta for their water, while mitigating the impacts of such a project on the local Delta region.”
The SEC is comprised of up to 17 members who were selected by DCA’s board of directors from a pool of applicants, and represent areas including culture and heritage, tourism, fishing, recreation, agriculture and business, among others. Up to five “ex officio” members may also be appointed. Nazli Parvizi with stakeholder engagement at the DCA, said a primary objective was to ensure the members represented the entire geographic region of the Delta. Secondarily, members needed to be well-connected in the region.
“We keep saying the Delta Stakeholder Engagement Committee members are liaisons, not representatives,” said Parvizi. “There’s no way one person could hold all of the opinions of the Delta farming community, or the wildlife community, or the environmental justice community. These are the people that have shown to us that they have a really good network and a really good ability to communicate these complex ideas in plain English.”
Mike Moran, supervising naturalist at Big Break Regional Shoreline in Oakley, is one of the two currently appointed ex officio members of the SEC. Moran said that stakeholder engagement is a key objective in his role with the East Bay Regional Park District.
“When I hear that the governor’s portfolio approach is looking for stakeholders at an early stage, that’s the kind of project that we need to get involved in,” said Moran. “That’s exactly what we do. Our whole thing here is to have people understand as many points of view of the Delta — as many stakeholders — as they can.”
The SEC will meet twice a month, and Parvizi explained that design and engineering ideas will be brought to the committee for discussion before plans are finalized. The role of the committee members will be to take the ideas back to the communities they serve, and collect feedback, which they’ll be expected to report at a subsequent meeting. While Parvizi was not involved with WaterFix, she is aware of complaints about a lack of sufficient engagement in that process — a mistake the DCA appears intent on avoiding.
“We received a lot of feedback that the stakeholder engagement process in the last project wasn’t as robust as people wished it would be, and people didn’t feel heard,” said Parvizi. “Now we have a new project that’s been reset, and the governor is committed to a one-tunnel conveyance ... We want to make sure that the Delta is always being considered when we talk design or engineering.”
The SEC will act only in an advisory capacity, and the DCA is not bound by any recommendations offered by the SEC.
Michael Brodsky, attorney for Save the California Delta Alliance, a Discovery Bay-based advocacy group that opposed the WaterFix project, expressed a concern that the committee will only consider how the tunnel could be built, but not if it should be built.
"We are concerned that stakeholder input is limited to relatively minor adjustments in an already-made-decision, to build a tunnel through the Delta," wrote Brodsky in an email to The Press. "They will not allow stakeholder input on alternatives to a tunnel. The massive ruinous impacts of a tunnel on the Delta ecosystem and Delta communities cannot be mitigated by engineering fixes or a Delta communities fund. Stakeholders are left to tinker with a project that they don’t want and that will ruin the Delta. This is not an honest process."
In an interview with The Press earlier this year, Sacramento-based environmental attorney Osha Meserve said one tunnel could be as problematic as two.
“We continue to be concerned about any tunnels or diversions in the north Delta for all of the reasons that we laid out in Water Board and other processes,” said Meserve. “Even a single tunnel could do a lot of damage to the watershed and beneficial uses in the Delta ... The footprint impacts, I think, stay quite similar.”
Brodsky and Meserve penned a letter to Erik Vink, executive director of the Delta Protection Commission, in which they expressed concern that the SEC could do more harm than good for Delta communities and that the SEC would be used to justify the construction of a tunnel "even though stakeholders actually had no meaningful input on a project that will harm the Delta for generations to come."
Echoing these concerns, the Delta Counties Coalition, made up of elected officials from the five Delta counties (Contra Costa, Sacramento, San Joaquin, Solano and Yolo) issued a letter to DCA Chair Tony Estremera last month in which they declined the DCA's invitation to apply for a seat on the SEC because, they argued, the scope of the committee was too restrictive. The coalition further asserted that the single-tunnel plan is being treated as a fait accompli before the merits of the plan are subject to public debate.
Karen Mann, SEC member and president of Save the California Delta Alliance, said she applied for a seat on the committee to ensure the perspective of residents of Discovery Bay and Bethel Island will be represented.
“I submitted an application because I wanted to be absolutely sure that we in the south and west Delta are represented,” said Mann. “I noticed that a lot of representation is from Sacramento and Stockton. I wanted to be sure that our little voices are being heard as well. We live here on the water ... We encourage people to use the waterways and we are very concerned about the effects on the waterways during construction.”
The DCP came into existence as Gov. Gavin Newsom pulled the plug on WaterFix in April of this year. Signaling a new direction in water policy, Newsom issued an executive order establishing the water resilience portfolio, and directed his administration to inventory and assess a number of water-related challenges and solutions, including a single-tunnel Delta conveyance plan, climate change and accessibility to safe drinking water.
Before it was canceled, the 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 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 distribution networks, and then been 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 its website that the DCP tunnel will have less capacity than WaterFix and will cost significantly less than WaterFix, but neither of those projections are specifically quantified.
“I think of this as a step in the right direction,” said Moran. “Hopefully, (I’m) not being totally naive about it. But going in and at least seeing this as a process of inviting in people who you used to consider your enemies — to come to some sort of conclusion together — I think that’s really good.”