Twin Tunnels are Trouble for North Coast Rivers

August, 2013

Governor Brown’s Twin Tunnels Project will adversely affect the Trinity and Klamath Rivers and has the potential to result in de-designation of North Coast Wild and Scenic Rivers,
including the Eel River.  

The Twin Tunnels are part of the Bay Delta Conservation Plan, an initiative that purportedly will restore the Sacramento/San Joaquin Delta and protect water supplies from Delta levee failure due to earthquakes and sea level rise.  The scheme calls for spending billions of dollars to “restore” Delta fish and wildlife habitat and build two 35-mile-long  tunnels 150 feet under the Delta to export freshwater from the Sacramento River.

The rationale: levee failures in the Delta will result in salt water inundating the intakes of the pumps that supply fresh water to more than 65 percent of Californians.  The real bottom line:  the tunnels will do nothing to assure water reliability—but they will result in a 50-year exemption to the U.S.  Endangered Species Act, permitting the pumping of unlimited amounts of water south of the Delta.

The trouble is that no “new” water exists to fill the Twin Tunnels. Further,  climate change models indicate a high likelihood of decreased water supplies.  Claims on water from Central Valley rivers are more than five times greater than the water that actually exists. The Bureau of Reclamation’s Trinity River water permits allow diversion of six times more water than actually exists in an average year.

State Water Project contracts are based on now defunct plans to dam several of California’s North Coast rivers and shunting an additional five million acre-feet of water to the Central Valley.  This, of course, never happened: in  1972 Governor Ronald Reagan designated portions of the Eel, Van Duzen, Trinity, Klamath and Smith Rivers as state Wild and Scenic Rivers, putting them off limits to new dams.  These North Coast rivers were incorporated into the federal Wild and Scenic River system by former Interior Secretary Cecil Andrus in 1980.  

It is not unreasonable to assume that California’s North Coast rivers, especially the Eel, could be de-designated as Wild and Scenic if the Twin Tunnels are built.  The tunnels will need MORE water than the amounts that currently exist  in order to make the project pay.   As a result, Dos Rios Dam could be back on the table.

A portion of the Merced River, a nationally-designated Wild and Scenic River, has been proposed for Wild and Scenic de-designation so the Merced Irrigation District can build New Exchequer Dam.  A proposal by the Bureau of Reclamation to raise Shasta Dam would also require state de-designation of a portion of the McCloud River, given that this stretch of pristine native trout water would be inundated by the project.  EcoNews readers are encouraged to contact Senator Feinstein to oppose the Twin Tunnels, oppose de-designation of the Merced River and to oppose the raising of Shasta Dam.

The Trinity River is the only California North Coast river that is plumbed to the Central Valley.   While Trinity River fishery flows were increased with the 2000 Trinity River Record of Decision by former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, the Bureau of Reclamation’s water rights and water contracts have never been modified to reflect these new requirements.
Operational analyses of the Twin Tunnels by the Bay Delta Conservation Plan shows increased diversions from Trinity Lake into the Sacramento River.  Decreased reservoir levels adversely affect the cold-water pool in Trinity Lake available for salmon and steelhead in the Trinity and lower Klamath Rivers.  Trinity River water is needed this August and September to improve water quality and quantity in the lower Klamath River in order to prevent a catastrophic fish kill similar to that of 2002.

In addition to the environmental impacts on Northern California’s rivers, reservoirs and aquifers, the dire economic impacts of the Twin Tunnels cannot be overstated.  Many of the Twin Tunnels’ costs would be paid for by state and federal taxpayers.   

Over $7 billion dollars in California water bonds are planned to fund this project.  For every $1 billion in water bonds sold, debt service will require about $56 million annually from the General Fund through the life of the bond (usually 30 years).   That is money that could otherwise be used for education, public safety, transportation and maintenance and repair of existing infrastructure.

And that’s just the take from state coffers. Billions of dollars will come directly out of the U.S. treasury to fund this project.

Water conservation, recycling, stormwater capture, desalinating groundwater and upgrading Delta levees all are much better—and cheaper —ways to improve California’s water supply reliability and protect Public Trust assets. In short, there is nothing Northern California can gain from the Twin Tunnels—environmentally or economically.  We can only lose.

Tom Stokely is Water Policy Analyst and Trinity River Advocate for the California Water Impact Network, 

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