California Bonds for $16 Billion Tunnel Targeted by Suit

Environmental groups in California have filed a lawsuit contesting the approval of revenue bonds to build a massive $16 billion water tunnel under an ecologically sensitive estuary, saying the state hasn’t yet completed required impact reviews.

The lawsuit, filed in Sacramento County Superior Court by the Sierra Club, the Center for Biological Diversity, the Planning and Conservation League, Restore the Delta and Friends of Stone Lakes National Wildlife Refuge, challenges the Department of Water Resources’s approval of the funding plan without first conducting a review under the California Environmental Quality Act, known as CEQA.

The state wants to build the 30-mile tunnel under an area known as the California Delta, an expansive river estuary south of Sacramento that covers about 1,150 square miles (2,980 kilometers). The highway-wide tunnel would divert about 6,000 cubic feet-per-second of water gathered from the northern areas of the state to southern California, home to about two-thirds of its population.

“DWR put the cart before the horse,” Tim Stroshane, a policy analyst with Restore the Delta, said in an emailed statement. “There is no final Delta tunnel plan, no environmental impact report, no permit from the State Water Resources Control Board, and no Federal permits. They don’t even have a Federal partner for the project. They don’t know which route the tunnel will be built through, and they do not have a finalized community mitigation plan. Worse, they don’t know how much water will be available to move through the tunnel.”

The project has long been controversial. The state says it’s needed to shore up the fragile delta watershed, to protect endangered fish and to prevent saltwater from San Francisco Bay flooding into the freshwater supply in the event of an earthquake that collapses levees. Some area farmers, residents and environmentalists oppose it for the expense, effect on local economies and potential watershed damage.

The state’s Department of Water Resources earlier this year filed a lawsuit seeking court validation for the bond sale as a way to head off potential challenges.

“The Department of Water Resources’ validation lawsuit and the bond resolutions adopted are for the purpose of confirming the Department’s legal authority to authorize and issue bonds,” the agency said in a emailed statement Thursday. “Confirmation of the Department’s authority to issue bonds does not commit the department to any particular course of action. The Department retains its full discretion to approve or reject a project following CEQA review.”

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