State and federal officials Monday defended key revisions to Gov. Jerry Brown’s plan to build water tunnels through the Delta, but acknowledged the changes could generate second thoughts among the water users who would pay for the project.
The revisions would reduce the certainty of how much water would get pumped south of the Delta to the farms of the San Joaquin Valley and urban Southern California, whose water agencies would pay to build the controversial twin tunnels.
Even with the reduced certainty, state and federal officials said building the tunnels would improve water deliveries to 25 million Southern Californians and 3 million acres of farmland that rely on water getting pumped from the troubled Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.
“We feel we would be remiss if we didn’t try to fix the system,” said Mark Cowin, director of the state Department of Water Resources. He added that the project’s cost, which had been set at $15 billion, likely would rise to $15.5 billion when habitat-mitigation costs are thrown in.
Speaking to reporters three days after releasing thousands of pages of new environmental documents on the project, Cowin said the tunnels project, now branded California WaterFix, isn’t a direct remedy for drought conditions. But he said the project, which could take 14 years to build, would help the state withstand dry conditions by bringing more water south during wet years.
Cowin acknowledged that a key revision announced by Brown in April is raising anxiety levels for some of the south-of-Delta water interests that would pay for the plan. The governor said the state would no longer seek a 50-year permit to operate the project, bowing to objections from federal environmental agencies that such a permit would lock in the project’s operators without regard to changing environmental conditions.
The groups that would pay for the tunnels wanted a 50-year permit because it would give them greater certainty about the delivery of water from the Delta.
Key investors are still mulling their options. The head of the Kern County Water Agency, a major agricultural district, told The Sacramento Bee last week that his agency isn’t convinced the tunnels pencil out financially without a 50-year permit. The general manager of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California said he still favors the tunnels but more study is needed.
Jeff Michael, a University of the Pacific economist who is critical of the tunnels, said the revision erases $10 billion worth of economic value over the life of the project, undermining its worth. “Without the 50-year assurance, you’re left with a project with very little water yield,” he said.
Cowin, however, contends the plan still makes sense because it would help remedy many of the environmental problems that interfere with the smooth flow of water to the San Joaquin Valley and Southern California.
The current system often reverses the natural flows in the Delta to route water to the giant Tracy pumps that push supplies to the San Joaquin Valley and beyond. The reversals draw fish, including those protected by the Endangered Species Act, into the pathway of predators and other potential harms. To protect the fish, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and the Department of Water Resources frequently must reduce or halt pumping.
The tunnels would largely eliminate that problem, giving south-of-Delta interests greater reliability of water deliveries, Cowin said. “By fixing that one thing, regardless of all the other external conditions that would ultimately affect water supply … we will be better off,” he said. The improvement in deliveries “can be measured in hundreds of thousands of acre-feet a year.”
The plan has come under attack from environmentalists and many Northern California elected officials. They say the tunnels represent a Southern California “water grab” that will worsen, not improve, fish and waterfowl habitats in the Delta by pumping more water south.
They are particularly critical of Brown’s decision to reduce a habitat conservation plan by two-thirds, to 30,000 acres, and to place that into a separate project that isn’t tied to the tunnels’ construction.
“Restoration of the Delta is now a lower priority than the twin tunnels,” Rep. Doris Matsui, D-Sacramento, said in a prepared statement last week. She said the tunnels “will only harm the health of the Delta’s waterways.”
Cowin said the 30,000 acres represent a first step in restoring the Delta’s fragile habitat. And instead of working methodically over 50 years to fix the habitat, the governor is demanding improvements begin no later than 2018, his last year in office. “We’re talking about a substantial increase in pace,” Cowin said.