Tribal and Environmental Organizations Sue to Stop Delta Tunnel Project

State Conducted Inadequate Review of Alternatives, Used Questionable Trump-era Interpretations of Law 

Oakland—Late yesterday, a coalition of Tribal and environmental organizations took legal action against the California Department of Water Resources for violating the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). The groups contend that when the agency finalized approval for Governor Newsom’s controversial Delta tunnel project in December 2023, it failed to consider, avoid, or mitigate the wide range of negative effects the project would have on Tribal and other historically marginalized communities, as well as on endangered fish populations and other wildlife.

The Delta tunnel—also called the Delta Conveyance Project—would divert vast quantities of fresh water from the San Francisco Bay-Delta estuary to industrial agricultural operations, as well as to large cities south of the Delta and outside of the Bay-Delta’s watershed. The health of the Bay-Delta, its wildlife, and its local residents depend on fresh water flowing from its Central Valley tributary rivers into the Bay.

The tunnel will also destroy Tribal sites that have been in use for thousands of years, along with the cultural practices associated with them. The agency’s CEQA review failed to consider the tunnel’s cultural implications for the Delta’s Tribal peoples who continue to rely on the Delta for their survival, and for whom the Delta is a fundamental part of their histories.

Among a host of errors, the Department of Water Resources relied on a Trump-era interpretation of the Endangered Species Act, even though California’s attorney general is challenging that opinion right now in court.

California diverts more than half of the water flowing through Central Valley rivers to serve industrial agriculture and big cities. Because of excessive water diversions, more and more fish native to San Francisco Bay and its watershed are verging on extinction, and California’s fisheries are increasingly shut down.

The groups taking legal action against the Department of Water Resources include the Shingle Springs Band of Miwok Indians, California Indian Environmental Alliance, The Bay Institute, Golden State Salmon Association, Restore the Delta, and San Francisco Baykeeper. The groups are represented by Jason Flanders at Aqua Terra Aeris Law Group, and by attorneys at San Francisco Baykeeper.

Eric Buescher, managing attorney, San Francisco Baykeeper:

 “Governor Newsom’s Delta tunnel would harm all of the communities that depend on the Bay and its tributary rivers, degrade the Bay’s water quality, and further decimate ecosystems and  fisheries that are already in crisis. Yet, the governor is hell-bent on sending more of the Bay’s fresh water to unsustainable industrial agriculture and to big cities outside of the watershed. He’s even willing to rely on the Trump administration’s misapplication of the law to get the job done. The Bay belongs to all of us, so we must make sure the Bay’s ecosystem is healthy. We had no choice but to take legal action to stop this harmful project.”

Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla, executive director, Restore the Delta: 

“The approved project document is inadequate because the Department of Water Resources is only committed to providing water for powerful political interests in California, and not managing the estuary for the common good, including tribes and environmental justice communities in the Delta.

“The Newsom Administration is pitting regions against each other for our limited water supply, rather than creating a climate water plan that equitably serves all Californians.”

Scott Artis, executive director, Golden State Salmon Association:

 “We are witnessing the creation of the next endangered species: the salmon families across California and Oregon who rely on the health of our fishery for their living, their community, and their culture. The Delta tunnel is one of the biggest salmon-killing projects in state history, and Governor Newsom has his hand directly on the spigot. The governor is doing everything he can to divert water away from our rivers, fish, and people in a vain effort to appease an insatiable industrial agricultural thirst.

“The salmon industry is already suffering from the Newsom fishing shutdown. California salmon fishing was completely closed in 2023, and is likely to be closed in 2024, because the governor mismanaged our rivers during the drought.”

Gary Bobker, Program Director, The Bay Institute:

 “Over the course of a century and a half, California has constructed what is arguably the world’s largest, most landscape-altering and environmentally destructive system of dams, canals, and diversions. The result has been the closure of salmon and other important fisheries, toxic algal blooms, and the looming threat of extinction for fish and wildlife species in the Bay-Delta and the Central Valley. But instead of learning from the past, the Newsom administration is moving backward, embracing a new Delta tunnel that would increase already unsustainable levels of water diversion, hastening the Bay-Delta’s collapse and further harming diverse communities of people who depend on a healthy ecosystem. California can manage for both sustainable ecosystems and sustainable water supplies, but not by sinking billions of dollars into an environmentally damaging—and unnecessary—tunnel project that springs from a nineteenth century approach to managing our state’s finite water resources.”