Pricey Delta tunnels will harm fish

For the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, change could be coming soon in the form of two giant tunnels to divert a portion of the Sacramento River.

The most recent Bay Delta Conservation Plan calls for building the tunnels in order to help drinking and irrigation water get to pumps near Tracy and on to about 25 million Californians and one million acres of farmland.

Despite long-term benefits of the 50-year plan, there are concerns that in the short term, some smelt and salmon species could be harmed by a loss of habitat.

This is what all parties seem to agree on. What isn’t settled yet is just what will happen to the fish after that.

Mark Cowin, director of the state Department of Water Resources, expressed confidence that with time, the affected species would bounce back and actually benefit from the diversion.

He bases his confidence on a 5,000 page analysis released by the Natural Resources Agency.

Environmental groups disagree. Gary Bobker, program director at the Bay Institute, says there is no hard evidence that new habitat would offset losses to fish species. He argues that the analysis is flawed, and pointed out that a couple of the affected smelt varieties are considered to be endangered:

“There’s a high risk of extinction for these species. It seems pretty irresponsible to put them at further risk by going down the route of degrading flow and relying on wetlands instead.”

The tunnels are one component of the state’s sweeping Delta plan. Though the state has been working on the project for six years, Cowin admits they’re not ready to commit to the full scale of the project.

Fortunately, the plan is designed to be adaptable, so changes can be made if necessary to protect wildlife.

The entire plan, if carried out, would cost about $25 billion.