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Interior sends mixed signals on California water project

Without agency approval, the Delta tunnels deal can’t proceed — but conflicting statements make next steps uncertain.


The Trump administration on October 25 seemed to announce its opposition to a long-planned project to revamp how water is shunted across California, according to a report from the Associated Press. 

But a later statement from the U.S. Interior Department sowed uncertainty as to how the agency, which helped plan the project, will proceed: “At this time, the department under the current state proposal does not expect to participate in the construction or funding of the California WaterFix. The department and (Bureau of Reclamation) will continue to work with the state and stakeholders as the project is further developed.”

The project, which was backed by the Obama administration, would route water through two enormous tunnels beneath the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. It would reengineer how a complex system of canals already shuttles water from the wetter, northern part of the state to parched southern California. Proponents, including Gov. Jerry Brown, D-Calif., say the $17-billion project would provide a reliable water supply to farms and cities. Environmental groups contend that continued diversions of freshwater flows will further damage the Delta ecosystem, home to endangered Delta smelt, salmon and steelhead.

Biologists monitor populations of threatened fish in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. Here, equipment used to capture fish sits below the Red Bluff Diversion Dam on the Sacramento River.

While water districts in California — not the federal government — would foot the bill for the tunnels, approval from the Interior Department is needed for it to proceed. “The Trump administration did not fund the project and chose to not move forward with it,” Russell Newell, deputy communications director for the Interior Department, told the Associated Press.

Here’s what you need to know to catch up on the history of the project:

Are water districts willing to pay for the project?

Funding for the Delta tunnels depends on the participation of the water districts that would use the water. So far, the verdict has been mixed: In September, Westlands Water District, the largest agricultural water district in the U.S., voted no on the project. A few weeks later, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, which supplies drinking water to 19 million people, voted yes. Kern County Water Agency, a largely agricultural water district, gave the project a partial endorsement, indicating it was interested in about half the share — and half the cost — planners expected. The LA Times reported that, as of mid-October, tunnel proponents had secured “funding commitments to only about a third of the project’s cost,” meaning major negotiations were still needed to make the project a reality.

Why did the Interior Department spokesman speak up now?

In September, a federal audit found that the Bureau of Reclamation improperly spent $84.8 million in federal funds between 2009 and 2016 on planning for the Delta tunnels project. This week, several Democrats in Congress requested a federal investigation into whether that spending was illegal, prompting the Interior Department spokesman to indicate the Trump administration’s opposition to the project.

The fate of the Delta tunnels affects more than just California

If the tunnels aren’t built, that could increase pressure on the notoriously over-allocated Colorado River. Many cities in southern California rely on water from both the northern part of the state and the Colorado. If the inter-state supply dwindles or becomes less reliable, those places may become more dependent on the river, which supplies irrigation and drinking water to seven Western states and Mexico.


Environmental protections, projections and lawsuits

In 2015, Brown slashed habitat restoration and protections included in the Delta tunnels plan, down to 30,000 acres from the originally planned 100,000 acres, over difficulties in securing environmental permits.

Last summer, the project cleared a major hurdle when federal scientists from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service issued reports saying it wouldn’t drive threatened fish to extinction. Environmental groups challenged that finding, filing a lawsuit to halt the project.

Get to know the Delta — and its politics

Figuring out how to balance the needs of humans and the environment isn’t a new problem for water managers in the Golden State. In this 2010 HCN feature story, Matt Jenkins dives into the political struggles over the Delta.

And in a story exploring the Delta’s flooded fields and maze-like channels, writer Jeremy Miller asks: “Can California possibly make good decisions about the fate of this 1,100-square-mile estuary when it remains terra incognita to such a large proportion of its citizenry?”

Emily Benson is an editorial fellow at High Country News.