Delta plans to restore ecosystem via tunnel or canal

February 2011, Vol. 66 No. 2

After meeting for four years and spending $140 million, the California Natural Resources Agency, U.S. Dept. of the Interior and our other agencies have released the Bay Delta Conservation Plan. The document outlines two goals: restoring the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta ecosystem and building a pair of tunnels or canal to ferry its water elsewhere.

Seven fish species in the Delta, the West's largest estuary, have been driven to the brink of extinction by demand for its water, which serves 25 million Californians and three million acres of farmland. Invasive species, water pollution and habitat loss have also contributed.

The conservation plan calls for a tunnel system or canal to divert Sacramento River water out of the estuary and deliver it directly to export canals near Tracy. In addition, more than 115,000 acres of restored habitat would help wildlife rebound.

The project is unprecedented in California and perhaps the nation. The tunnels option would cost $12.7 billion, while the canal would cost $8.4 billion. Habitat projects would add about $4 billion more to either option.

The report recommended the tunnel as the safest way to transport water to the Central Valley and the easiest process to permit. The project would be paid for by state and federal water purveyors, who would pass the cost onto water users.

An environmental review will be held this year, followed by the permitting process. Construction could begin in 2013 and be completed by 2022.