Environmentalists challenge state approval of bonds to build Delta tunnel

By Debra Kahn 10/29/2020 04:55 PM EDT

Five environmental groups are suing California over plans to issue bonds that would enable the state to revamp its central water delivery hub, the groups announced Thursday.

What happened: The suit filed Tuesday in Sacramento County Superior Court by the Sierra Club, Center for Biological Diversity and three other groups argues the state violated the California Environmental Quality Act by approving the issuance of $16 billion in bonds for construction of a tunnel underneath the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta before completing an environmental analysis. It’s the first lawsuit filed against the current single-tunnel version of the project.

The state hasn’t actually issued bonds yet and is still working on its analysis of the project and various alternatives under CEQA. The Department of Water Resources approved a resolution in August that would allow the state to issue the bonds.

Background: California officials have been considering adding to the massive set of canals and pumps in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta since the 1960s, in order to draw water from a less-salty part of the Delta and also to reduce harm to endangered fish that are disturbed by the pumps. Under former Gov. Jerry Brown, the plan to build a canal around the Delta morphed into twin tunnels underneath it, and then became a single tunnel, which Gov. Gavin Newsom has endorsed. The plan has been stalled by financing issues and opposition from environmentalists and Delta-area farmers who object to continued levels of exports from the delta ecosystem.

Environmentalists challenged DWR’s approval of bond issuances the last time around as well, objecting to the validity of the CEQA analysis. This time, they’re objecting to the lack of a completed CEQA analysis.

“[State officials’] argument is they say these sorts of financial commitments are not subject to CEQA environmental review requirements,” Center for Biological Diversity senior counsel John Buse said. “We think they’re wrong about that because that exemption only goes so far. When commitment is to a particular project, that’s enough to trigger the environmental review.”

What’s next: Objections to the state’s plan to issue bonds are due by Friday. The state is aiming to publish a draft CEQA document by 2022 and finalize it by 2023, with a goal of getting all necessary permits by 2024. DWR didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

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