Lawsuit challenges permits for WaterFix tunnels; project if approved would be $17 to $67 billion in scope

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Conservation groups have sued the California Department of Fish and Wildlife to challenge the legality of a state permit that would allow the controversial Delta tunnels project to kill endangered salmon and other imperiled fish protected by the state’s Endangered Species Act.

The tunnels project known as California WaterFix would divert massive amounts of fresh water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta to the San Joaquin Valley and Southern California, doing significant harm to Central Valley salmon runs, declining Delta fish populations and the Bay-Delta ecosystem.

California WaterFix is the latest in a long line of water diversion projects intended to remove vast quantities of water from the Delta before it reaches San Francisco Bay. On the scale of the English Channel Tunnel, the $17 billion to $67 billion project would build two 30-mile tunnels, each four stories high, to route water from the Sacramento River in the north Delta to central and Southern California. The water diversions would degrade habitat conditions for declining runs of salmon and smelt, kill young fish at diversion points, disrupt the estuary’s food chain and increase salinity in the Delta.

“Salmon and smelt populations are already on the verge of extinction, and the state’s own science shows that exporting even more water from the Delta by approving the tunnels project would hasten extinction,” said Gary Bobker, program director at the Bay Institute. “It’s clearly illegal to permit WaterFix when doing so places the future existence of these species at risk, and unnecessary too, since there are better ways to meet our state’s water supply needs than approving this project.”

The lawsuit was filed Sept. 22 in California Superior Court in Sacramento by the Bay Institute, Center for Biological Diversity, Natural Resources Defense Council and San Francisco Baykeeper; they’re represented by the nonprofit environmental law firm Earthjustice. The suit challenges Fish and Wildlife’s July 2017 issuance of a “take” permit for the tunnel operations. The claim asserts the agency improperly authorized the California Department Water Resources to kill and harm state-protected fish species, including winter-run and spring-run chinook salmon, longfin smelt and Delta smelt.

“You can’t just give a permit to decimate California’s remaining salmon runs and drive critical fish species in the Bay Delta to extinction,” said Jeff Miller with the Center for Biological Diversity. “It’s time to kill this misguided tunnels project once and for all and focus on improving fresh water flows to restore the Delta.”

“Construction and operation of the tunnels will devastate California’s native fisheries, threaten thousands of fishing jobs, and leave the Bay-Delta estuary worse off than today,” said Doug Obegi, a senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council. “It will also divert critical funding away from cost-effective water supply solutions.”

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