Environmental Law

Envt'l Law News Spring 2017, Vol. 26, No. 1

California WaterFix: A Snapshot of the SWRCB Water Rights Change Hearings

by Austin C. Cho*


After five parched years, substantial winter rains and Sierra snowpack have brought California a long-sought reprieve from drought, though not without presenting a new set of challenges. In February, nearly 200,000 residents below an overflowing Lake Oroville were forced to temporarily evacuate their homes due to the reservoir’s inundated and damaged spillways.1 Increased river flows have resulted in some of the state’s floodplain levees showing signs of strain and threat of breach.2 Yet despite the recent deluge, portions of the state remain relatively dry and many groundwater basins will take years to recover from overpumping. While Governor Brown has finally lifted the state’s drought emergency for most regions, he cautions that "the next drought could be around the corner."3

These varying extreme conditions have been cited as a justification for the California WaterFix project ("WaterFix" or "Delta Tunnels"), new water infrastructure proposed by the California Department of Water Resources ("DWR") and United States Bureau of Reclamation ("collectively "Petitioners") to divert water from the northern Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta just south of Sacramento. Southern Delta diversions for DWR’s State Water Project ("SWP") and Reclamation’s Central Valley Project ("CVP") would also be retained. The Petitioners say that WaterFix would improve California’s water infrastructure system and increase supply reliability for areas that use water exported from the Delta. The plan calls for the construction of three north Delta intakes, each capable of diverting 9,000 cubic feet per second, feeding into two 40-foot-wide, 30-mile-long tunnels. Currently, fresh water inflows from the Sacramento River wend their way through the complex of Delta channels towards the Bay Delta estuary and, ultimately, the Pacific Ocean. The tunnels would divert a portion of that water directly to the State and Federal water projects’ existing export facilities in the south Delta. Proponents say these new diversions would provide needed flexibility to divert water from the northern Delta at times that conditions for diversion in the southern Delta are not ideal due to endangered species protections, water quality requirements, and other constraints.

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