California Fixes Critical WaterFix Project By Cutting Back to One Tunnel

The state of California, in desperation to deal with increasingly-shrinking water supplies, has finally given a go for a reduced version of its plans to build tunnels under the West Coast’s largest estuary.

The Delta viewed from above Sherman Island, with the Sacramento River above and San Joaquin River below. Photo: By (

The plan stems from what has been alternately referred to as WaterFix or Delta Tunnels. It is a plan to build two 35-mile water-carrying tunnels under the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta. When complete, it would bring precious water around that delta down to farmers and cities in the southern part of the state. It was considered by Governor Jerry Brown critical to ensuring reliability and access to water for over 25 million Californians.

That plan had drawn tremendous criticism from many. From an environmental standpoint, while Federal fisheries representatives had approved the project and said it would pose limited concerns for native salmon and other endangered species, others were far more concerned. Environmental groups have called attention to what amounts to a replumbing of the state’s aquifer system as akin to what happened when Los Angeles ‘stole’ water from the Owens Valley in the early 20th century in order to support its growth many decades ago, a story told from the movie, “Chinatown”. Review of the full potential environmental impacts – including even the state’s own analysis which runs to 40,000 pages -- has raised such concerns that water agencies across Northern California and Sacramento County have sued to stop the project.

The second challenge came from understanding how much the full project might eventually cost. The expense – when examined thoroughly kept rising dramatically, suggesting the plan was being oversold without a full understanding of what would be required to make it a reality. Citing primarily the increasingly questionable cost estimates, in late 2017 the board of the Westlands Water District, which is responsible for providing water to over 700 farms, voted 7-1 not to approve their part of the funding for the project. Without that money, the two-tunnel plan could not be started.

The current single-tunnel solution, seen as a way to get the project started and allow for a second tunnel later, has now been proposed as the state’s latest greatest pitch. It would require building two new intakes to the Sacramento River and some downstream construction. When finished, this first tunnel would deliver 6,000 cubic feet of water per second (cfs) through the system. Assuming the project is a success, the state still hopes to build a second tunnel later as it had planned in the first place. That second one would add 9,000 cfs more to the total flow.

The state still needs to finalize the one-tunnel plan and deal with the current lawsuit against even that. Hoping for the best, the first tunnel may be under construction by the end of this year. That is according to Department of Water Resources Director Karla Nemeth.