Assessments of Delta Tunnel Impacts on Cultural and Historic Resources Fall Short – Section 106 Newsletter #5

This Delta Protection Commission occasional newsletter was sent at 06/01/2023 07:01 AM PDT

The Delta Protection Commission (Commission) has found that the Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) on the Delta Conveyance Project (Delta tunnel) does not adequately describe the tunnel’s effects on the cultural and historic resources in its path. In comments sent to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (Corps) on March 15, the Commission recommends that the Corps adopt the “No Action” Alternative rather than approving permits for the Delta tunnel because of the project’s significant and unmitigated damage to cultural and historic resources.

The California Department of Water Resources (DWR) is the project proponent for the Delta tunnel. The Corps is a federal regulator with responsibility for deciding whether to authorize the project. The Corps developed the DEIS under the National Environmental Policy Act to evaluate the Delta tunnel’s environmental impacts.

Commission Comments on Impacts to Historic Resources

The DEIS describes historic and cultural resources damaged by the Delta tunnel. The Commission has found that this description fails to recognize the Delta’s status as a cultural landscape valued by California Native American tribes, Delta residents, and visitors. The DEIS focuses on built environment resources, such as historic buildings, and archaeological sites rather than the larger cultural landscape surrounding them. For example, many of Locke’s Chinese residents worked the orchards and farms surrounding the town. Damage to these orchards and farms would impair Locke’s integrity as a National Historic Landmark.

The DEIS also identifies built resources that the tunnel would damage. This list omits important properties including parts of Hood, the Victory Highway (State Route 160), historic riverside orchards, and Roberts Island.

In addition, the DEIS’s assessment of factors that would damage the setting for historic properties is inadequate. The DEIS fails to take in account noise impacts; visual impacts through introduction of project facilities; and removal of structures, vegetation, or other contextual features. However, the DEIS acknowledges that the proposed measures to mitigate these impacts would not prevent significant adverse effects.

A tractor Roberts Island - courtesy of NY Public Library

Historic photo of a tractor on Roberts Island. Courtesy of the New York Public Library.

The shortcomings in the DEIS may be more of the responsibility of the DWR than the Corps. The Corps relied on DWR’s Draft Environmental Impact Report (DEIR) for its assessment of impacts to historic and cultural resources. The Commission’s comment letter on the DEIS points out that in preparation of the DEIR, DWR failed to adequately consult with local experts, including local historical societies and other authorities, contrary to established historic preservation guidelines. It is apparent in the DEIR that DWR limited the scope of its consultants’ work, resulting in research that ignored the setting of cultural resources in San Joaquin and Sacramento counties where the tunnel’s worst effects would occur.

The Corps is now considering and preparing responses to comments on the DEIS from the Commission and others. The Final EIS is anticipated to be published in 2024.

You can review the Commission’s full comments on both the DEIS and the DEIR on the Commission’s website.

Historic photo of telegraph building in Courtland, CA

View of the Delta Telephone and Telegraph Company building and neighboring house in Courtland, Sacramento County. Courtesy of the California State Library E. F. Mueller Postcard Collection.

Survey of Cultural Resources Affected by the Delta Tunnel

To ensure that the Commission’s efforts to protect the Delta’s historic resources from damage by the tunnel are based on the best available information, we have drafted a survey of cultural and historic properties that the tunnel could affect. The survey was completed in March 2023. You can read the survey on the Commission website (PDF).

The survey identifies over 60 historic resources in the Delta, with a focus on resources in areas affected by the tunnel. The survey’s outline and approach were informed by the themes in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta National Heritage Area Feasibility Study (PDF). Research for the survey also drew on information from the Commission’s Delta Narratives report (PDF) and was supplemented by additional staff research and reviews by historians, landscape architects, Delta community organizations and residents, and staff at the affected counties.

The survey proposes that areas in the Delta affected by the Delta tunnel are part of a “significant cultural landscape” that meets the Secretary of the Interior’s Guidelines for Treatment of Cultural Landscapes and its Guidelines for Treatment of Rural Historic Landscapes and should be protected. The landscape at stake is primarily agricultural, which in the Delta developed early with features that now define much of the landscape’s character.

The survey describes types of features that the tunnel may affect such as landscapes, communities, people, and structures. These include small riverside communities, such as Hood, adjoining farms and riverbanks along the Sacramento River and State Route 160, the tunnel boring machine (TBM) launch shaft sites and tunnel muck storage sites on Twin Cities Road and Roberts Island, and the TBM retrieval shaft sites in San Joaquin and Contra Costa counties.

The California Environmental Quality Act, National Environmental Policy Act, and National Historic Preservation Act all require consideration of impacts to cultural resources, including historic properties. Project alternatives that could avoid adverse impacts must be identified and feasible measures to mitigate damage must be proposed.

The Commission’s comments on the Delta tunnel DEIR and DEIS drew on information in the survey to identify historic buildings and districts that the project would damage and potential ways to avoid or reduce impacts. These include both sites listed on the state or national registers of historic places, as well as sites that Commission staff believe meet state and federal criteria for listing. The draft survey has also been provided to Corps staff involved in Section 106 consultation under the National Historic Preservation Act in response to its request for information about historic resources.

Historic photo of celery fields in the Delta

Celery fields in the Delta. Courtesy of the New York Public Library.

What’s Next

While DWR and the Corps prepare responses to public and agency comments on the DEIR and DEIS, the Commission, affected Delta counties, and the United Auburn Indian Community, one of the affected tribes, are continuing to meet with the Corps as part of consultation about protecting cultural and historic resources under the National Historic Preservation Act Section 106. For more information on the consultation process, see Volume 1 of the Section 106 newsletters.

The Corps has prepared two drafts of a Section 106 programmatic agreement. These drafts have been circulated among the consulting parties, DWR, and the State Historic Preservation Office. The agreement, a first step in compliance with Section 106, lays out key steps in applying Section 106 to the Delta tunnel, a general timeline for compliance, and the roles of the responsible agencies, including opportunities for public participation. The United Auburn Indian Community, Commission staff, and Delta counties have responded with comments that ask the Corps to:

  • Recognize the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta National Heritage Area and evaluate the Delta as a historically significant cultural landscape.
  • Avoid arbitrary limits on the area evaluated for potential adverse effects on cultural resources. Instead evaluate impacts from the full range of tunnel effects including noise, visual impacts, traffic congestion, and potential building abandonment.
  • More thoroughly describe opportunities for Delta residents to review and comment on information about historical properties affected by the project including historic property surveys, findings of effect, and historic property treatment plans. Share all but confidential reports prepared about cultural resources and their protection with other parties to the agreement, including the Commission, counties, and tribes.
Historic photo of steel bridge in San Joaquin County

Steel bridge in San Joaquin County. Courtesy of the New York Public Library.

Get Involved

The involvement of people who care about the Delta’s cultural and historic resources is key to protecting these assets. One way to get involved is sharing this newsletter with Delta historians, community groups, and others who are knowledgeable about Delta history and care about our region’s future. They can add themselves to the newsletter’s distribution list by signing up online.

For More Information

Volume #1 Protecting the Delta from DWR’s Proposed Tunnel with the National Historic Preservation Act

Volume #2 U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Proposes Agreement on Program for Protecting Historic Properties

Volume #3 DWR Delta Conveyance EIR Provides First Opportunity to Protect Historic Properties

Volume #4 U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Draft Environmental Impact Statement Offers Next Opportunity to Protect Cultural and Historic Resources from Proposed Delta Tunnel