Aerial view looking south east at a section of the San Joaquin River and right St Francis Yacht Club located on Tinsley Island part of the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta in San Joaquin County, California. Photo taken May 11, 2023. California Department of Water Resources

COURTHOUSE NEWS: California judge rules state can’t issue bonds to finance Delta tunnel project

The so-called “Delta Conveyance Project” would include a 36-foot wide tunnel extending about 45 miles to divert enough water from the Sacramento River for 5.2 million people to use.

By Alan Riquelmy, Courthouse News Service

The controversial Delta Conveyance Project took a major financial hit this week, after a Sacramento County judge ruled California can’t issue bonds to fund the project.

Sacramento County Superior Court Judge Kenneth C. Mennemeier issued a narrow ruling Tuesday about the bonds for the project, which would put a massive tunnel to convey water under the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta. Mennemeier found the California Department of Water Resources’ definition of the “delta program” isn’t linked to the Feather River Project.

A bureaucratic connection between the two is essential for the bonds, the judge ruled in the case Sierra Club v. California Department of Water Resources.

The department has the power to issue bonds to finance projects under the Central Valley Project Act. The Feather River Project falls under that act. However, for the department to issue bonds for the delta project, it must be a modification of the Feather River Project.

Mennemeier ruled it isn’t an modification, meaning the department can’t issue bonds to finance the delta project.

“For (the department) to act, it must have delegated authority,” Mennemeier writes. “Although the Legislature plainly delegated broad authority to (the department), it did not delegate infinite authority.”

He added “In plain words, the problem with (the department’s) definition of the ‘delta program’ is that its definition is untethered to the objectives, purposes, and effects of the Feather River Project.”

John Buse, senior counsel for the Center for Biological Diversity, praised the judge’s decision.

“The court was right to recognize that the state’s scheme to finance the environmentally disastrous delta tunnel project was unlawful,” Buse said in a statement. “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 San Joaquin Delta.”

However, Buse doesn’t think the department will shelve the project, despite the ruling. He said an appeal from the department is likely, as the delta project is doomed without financing.

Buse said his organization and others involved in the suit now plan on filing a complaint challenging the delta project’s approval and environmental review.

Governor Gavin Newsom’s office deferred comment to the department.

“This ruling is specific to the question of revenue bond authorization; it does not refer to the validity of the Delta Conveyance Project,” said Margaret Mohr, the department’s deputy director of communications, in a statement. “DWR disagrees with the court’s decision and is determining how to best move forward, including whether to appeal the decision to the court of appeal.”

The bonds would have raised $16 billion or more to plan and build the delta project, which officials in 2022 estimated would take 12 to 15 years to build. Buse said it would divert billions of gallons of water each year from the Sacramento River, hurting the ecosystem and farming communities.

State officials have said they expect to lose 10% of their water supply by 2040 due to climate change. The delta project is a critical aspect of Newsom’s water supply strategy.

The strategy involves capturing more water during the wet season, helping stave off future climate-caused losses. It would move more water and help during earthquakes, which could cut community water connections.

The ruling this week comes about a month after the project passed two key thresholds — the release of an environmental impact report and approval from the state Department of Water Resources.

Officials have said the delta project would include a 36-foot wide tunnel extending about 45 miles. Two facilities south of Sacramento would pump 3,000 cubic feet of water a second from the Sacramento River into the tunnel, drawing 500,000 acre-feet of water a year — enough for 5.2 million people.


THIS JUST IN … Court sides with counties and agencies, dismissing DWR’s attempt to “validate” bond resolutions to finance controversial Delta tunnel project

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