Gordon Enas, the Department of Water Resources principal engineer for… (Rich Pedroncelli, Associated…)
The state is moving the route of a proposed tunnel system in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta away from north delta communities to a land preserve that is an important winter home for the greater sandhill crane and other migratory birds in the Pacific Flyway.
The realignment, announced Thursday by the California Natural Resources Agency, is intended to lessen the project's effects on north delta residents who have complained fiercely about the proposal — in some instances refusing to let state survey crews on their property.
But the changes are stirring a new set of concerns that a project that aims to improve fish and wildlife habitat will turn a portion of a bird refuge into a noisy construction site for five years.
The tunnels are at the core of a proposal to re-engineer the way the state and federal water projects divert water from the delta and send it south to the San Joaquin Valley and Southern California.
A new diversion point on the Sacramento River in the north delta would connect to two underground tunnels leading to existing export facilities in the south delta. More than 100,000 acres of fish and wildlife habitat would also be restored in the delta, which is a maze of agricultural islands and water channels that empty into San Francisco Bay.
The redesign shifts the northern portion of the tunnel system a few miles to the east, away from the towns of Hood and Courtland and closer to Interstate 5. It also shortens the tunnel's length by five miles, to 30 miles, and slashes the size of a water storage area near the diversion point from 750 acres to 40 acres.
The redesign cuts the footprint of permanent facilities by about half, to 1,851 acres, and moves some land uses from private to state-owned lands.
"The impacts to the delta are real. They are of concern to us," said Natural Resources Secretary John Laird, adding that the state met with local elected officials and landowners. "We're looking at ways … that we can accommodate them."
But he said the changes, some of which were made for engineering reasons, were unlikely to reduce the cost of the $24-billion project.
While the realignment may please some individual landowners, it is unlikely to quiet delta protests. Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla, executive director of Restore the Delta, a vocal anti-tunnel group, called the redesign "a failed attempt" to show that the project's architects "are sensitive to delta communities."
And the rerouting sends the tunnels under Staten Island, which was purchased by the nonprofit Nature Conservancy 12 years ago with $30 million in state bond money to provide sandhill crane habitat.
State officials said that every effort would be made to keep construction activity away from sandhill sites. Laird noted that the delta restoration program is intended to improve habitat for dozens of species, including the sandhills.
But a construction shaft would be built on the island, along with a road. Nearly 1,300 acres of the 9,290-acre island would be used to stockpile excavated material from the tunnel bores.
About 15% of the greater sandhills that winter in the Central Valley stay on Staten, often returning year after year to the same parts of the island. "They just don't go anywhere," said Mike Sweeney, the conservancy's California executive director.
"That's why this is a pretty serious situation," he said. "If it's going to cause major damage to sandhill cranes, that's a flyway issue."
Sweeney said his organization would work to protect its interests on the island, but acknowledged that "at the end of the day, the state has eminent domain" and could condemn the property.