DWR rushes to complete geotechnical drilling in WaterFix project alignment

On June 10, 2019, the Department of Water Resources (DWR) began extensive geotechnical drilling to evaluate a single tunnel project in the WaterFix project alignment.  The drilling is currently suspended, pending resolution of a Temporary Restraining Order issued by Sacramento Superior Court at the request of Sacramento County.  The work is being done without required county permits to protect groundwater.

The geotechnical work was ordered by the Delta Conveyance Design and Construction Authority (DCA) ahead of a July 31, 2019 deadline to complete work under a court Order of Entry that DWR initially obtained in June of 2017.  Boring locations in the court order include the WaterFix North tunnel leading from Intake #5, and the WaterFix main tunnel alignment on Venice Island and Victoria Island in the South Delta. The boreholes are 6.5 to 8 inches in diameter and 150 to 200 feet deep.

Intake drilling

According to DWR’s May 22, 2019 environmental document for the drilling, the geotechnical work is being done is to complete geotechnical exploration in the WaterFix project tunnel alignment that began in 2010 and 2011.  The geotechnical work is part of ongoing work under contracts executed in January of 2019 for the WaterFix project.  The DCA signed a $93 million contract with Jacobs Engineering in January of 2019 for engineering design, and a $75 million contract with Fugro for geotechnical services.

Controversy over the geotechnical work

When the geotechnical drilling crews arrived in the Delta, DWR employees distributed flyers characterizing the work as “soil sampling” to “investigate alternative conveyance types and alignment locations.”  Delta residents were outraged.  Delta community and business groups sent a letter to DWR Director Karla Nemeth on June 12, stating

Allowing the Delta Conveyance Design and Construction Authority (“DCA”) to continue preliminary design, survey and right of way mapping, and real estate acquisition planning based on the withdrawn WaterFix project specifications is wholly unacceptable to our communities. To our knowledge, DWR has no approved plans or specifications for the new Delta conveyance.  And if the WaterFix project specifications are being used as the basis for the design of the new Delta conveyance under DWR’s authority, it is predecisional and will prejudice the new Delta conveyance CEQA process.

Gary Lippner, DWR’s Deputy Director of Delta Conveyance, responded on June 17, 2019 stating that “[n]either the Department of Water Resources (DWR) nor the Delta Conveyance Design and Construction Authority (DCA) is continuing work on that project or currently performing any new planning based on the previous WaterFix approvals.”

Kathryn Mallon, the Delta Conveyance Design and Construction Authority Executive Director, has since clarified that the current geotechnical work is being done in support of a single tunnel in the WaterFix project tunnel alignment.  She stated that the work is needed to “support the preferred alignment of the previous planning work and [is] necessary to answer critical questions related to this particular alternative (eg. pile driving methods and noise levels at the proposed intake locations.)”

With regard to alternative designs, the DCA Executive Director stated,

The DCA has budgeted for and is in the process of preparing a boring plan that is more geographically expansive and includes collecting information in corridors for alternatives that are expected to evolve from the NEPA process, including the previously preferred alternative but not limited to this alternative.

According to the DCA’s Fiscal Year 2019-2020 budget, the DCA is planning to spend $82 million over the next 12 months, including $35 million on engineering design and $20 million on field work  ($98 million with contingency.)  When the proposed 2019-2020 budget was released on June 17, Delta community and business groups expressed shock at DWR’s approval of the aggressive schedule, stating:

We strongly disagree with this approach of rushing forward with engineering design and geotechnical work. The way to mitigate impacts of the project on Delta legacy communities and fish is to first reconsider the project design in consultation with Delta stakeholders. This process must start with DWR addressing the requirements of the Delta Reform Act to reduce reliance on the Delta, and to restore, enhance, and protect the Delta as an evolving place. Pursuant to the National Historic Preservation Act DWR must also start with an early consultation on historic properties.

The Delta community groups also requested that DWR rescind authorization for the geotechnical work until the appropriate county permits were obtained.

DWR’s Deputy Director Lippner and the DCA’s Executive Director Kathryn Mallon have offered to meet with the groups to “discuss the planning process and hear their thoughts on local engagement.”  But DWR’s attorneys are simultaneously seeking to continue the geotechnical work without county permits.  The Delta Conveyance Design and Construction Authority Board also approved the $82 million budget for Fiscal Year 2019-2020 at the June 20, 2019 meeting, including $55 million for engineering design and field work.

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