Monday, January 29, 2024






        The press release made the so-called Delta Conveyance Project seem like a sure thing after the massive $16 billion project received its final formal state approval early in January.


        “Today marks another significant milestone in our

efforts to modernize state water infrastructure and adapt to the challenges of changing precipitation patterns,” went the statement from Karla Nemeth, director of the state Department of Water Resources (DWR).


        It didn’t take a genius to realize that despite such talk from Nemeth and other state officials, this was no done deal. Bulldozers were not about to appear overnight to start installing the project’s planned 39-foot-high culverts, which would dwarf even the largest Hamas tunnel.


        Within minutes, opponents of the California tunnel vowed to keep fighting it in court and anywhere else they can think of.


The first big devil-in-the-details to appear turns out to be rather significant: Where is that $16 billion (a figure almost certain to expand) going to come from?


        The state bureaucrats’ plan was to use revenue bonds, borrowing the money and then paying it back from fees paid by users of the approximately 500,000 acre feet of water the giant project would send south from the delta of the San Joaquin and Sacramento rivers via the state Water Project.


        The bureaucrats (and Gov. Gavin Newsom, a huge backer of the plan) figured they would issue bonds via a 1959 law authorizing the DWR to make changes to the water project.


        Uh-uh, said a Sacramento judge less than two weeks after Nemeth’s almost giddy press release. Any bonds will need approval from either the voters or the Legislature – and possibly both, if legislators should pass them only to see them challenged by a ballot referendum.


        Superior Court Judge Kenneth Mennemeier, appointed in 2016 by then-Gov. Jerry Brown – long a supporter of the tunnel or something similar – said the 1959 law was too broad and would give the state unchecked authority to build whatever it wants wherever it wants. That’s not allowed under other laws, Mennemeier ruled.



        This brought joy to outfits like Stockton-based Restore the Delta, the conservation-minded Sierra Club and the Center for Biological Diversity.


        The center had sued the DWR just after the Nemeth announcement, saying state analysts did not consider how a dramatically reduced river flow would affect wildlife like the Delta smelt, Chinook salmon and other fish.


        It charged the tunnel would take away about one-third of the flow that now both nurtures aquatic life and helps keep saltwater intrusion at bay.


        “The court was right to recognize that the state’s scheme to finance the environmentally disastrous Delta tunnel was unlawful,” said John Buse of the Center for Biological Diversity. “Without the bonds to fund this boondoggle, the project’s future is bleak and that’s very good news for people and wildlife in the Delta.”


        It’s likely also good news for most voters in northern parts of the state.


        For the current tunnel plan is but another iteration of an idea originally passed by the Legislature in 1980, which initiated today’s common practice of challenging legislative actions with ballot referenda.


        The project then was called the Peripheral Canal. Rather than a tunnel, it would have created a steep and deep 45-mile-long ditch to divert Sacramento River water south.


Fully 93 percent of all voters from Modesto north voted in 1980 to cancel the Peripheral Canal. That was much more than needed to override the 60 percent approval the project got from voters in Southern California and came as close as America has ever seen to a Soviet-style plebiscite.


        Many of 1980's voters, of course, have passed on, but there’s no reason to believe a vote today would go any different. Because Northern California legislators know this, there’s very little chance bonds for the more elaborate modern tunnel project would get legislative approval.


        That’s probably why the state never sought such approval, but tried instead to ramrod a revenue bond issue through with little attention.


        The bottom line here is that hopes have been dashed for anyone who banked on the state’s giddy, almost gloating announcement that it had approved this old idea at last. It may happen someday, but for now, that day remains far in the future.


    Email Thomas Elias at His book, "The Burzynski Breakthrough, The Most Promising Cancer Treatment and the Government’s Campaign to Squelch It," is now available in a soft cover fourth edition. For more Elias columns, visit

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