Superior Court Puts Controversial Delta Tunnel Project on Hold

Tribes, Enviros, Fishing Groups Argued Invasive Geological Exploration Would Cause Irreparable Harm to the Delta and its People

Sacramento, Calif.—Late last week, the Sacramento County Superior Court stopped the California Department of Water Resources (DWR) from performing invasive investigatory geological work the agency deemed necessary before building the controversial Delta tunnel. This decision effectively shuts the project down until DWR complies with the law and the court’s order. 

The court’s action comes in response to a request by a broad group including Tribes, environmental and public interest nonprofits, recreational and commercial fishing interests, Sacramento and San Joaquin Counties, and other public agencies. 

The court found that the proposed geotechnical work was unlawful at this stage. Under the Delta Reform Act of 2009, enacted to protect the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, the tunnel must be approved by the Delta Stewardship Council before project implementation can begin. Performing the geotechnical work—extensive trenching, boring, and excavating massive test pits—is the start of implementing the project, therefore requiring approvals the DWR has not yet sought.

Attorneys for the coalition argued that the tunnel would further decimate ecosystems that are already in crisis, as well as harm the communities that depend on the Bay, the Delta, and their tributary rivers. The tunnel would also degrade the Bay’s water quality, and put irreplaceable Tribal cultural and archaeological assets at risk of destruction. In addition, the attorneys argued that the state—in its rush to build the tunnel—was shutting the public out of the decision-making process, especially those people who live along the Delta and are invested in the waterway’s health.  

Quotes from coalition member organizations:

Sherri Norris, Executive Director for the California Indian Environmental Alliance: “CIEA is happy to support the Bay Area,  Delta, and Sacramento River Tribes in protecting subsistence fishing and cultural resources for current and future Tribal generations. Destruction of the Sacramento watershed by the state of California allows the continued extirpation of Tribes and advances historical genocide of California’s first peoples.”

Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla, Executive Director of Restore the Delta: “The Department of Water Resources for 15 years has planned and pushed for Delta Conveyance, circumventing meaningful responses to issues raised by community, Tribes, and local government entities. This litigation is a meaningful corrective in the present, and step to stopping a project that will destroy the estuary and that will fail to provide affordable, reliable water for Southern California.”

Eric Buescher, Baykeeper managing attorney: “The Department of Water Resources has spent over a half billion taxpayer dollars hyping the Delta Tunnel Project over the last 15 years, and is set to spend billions more. Unfortunately, the agency has yet to show that the tunnel is beneficial, let alone viable, and continues to downplay the very real harms it poses to people and the environment. Any scientifically rigorous and legally defensible analysis of the Delta Tunnel Project shows that the tunnel is harmful and inconsistent with California law. It is time for this expensive and destructive boondoggle to come to an end.” 

Scott Artis, Executive Director of Golden State Salmon Association: “The fixation on the Delta Tunnel paints a damning picture of the state’s commitment to environmental stewardship, fisheries restoration, and the tens of thousands of jobs that rely on healthy salmon populations. 

The Department of Water Resources attempting to rush through the project’s geotechnical work before getting legally required approvals not only fast-tracks disruptions to our fisheries but also erodes public trust. It’s time to prioritize the needs of California’s people and ecosystems over corporate interests and shortsighted, fish-killing projects.”