Water & Drought

Jerry Brown officially downsizes Delta tunnel plan. But can he sell one tunnel?

The troubled Delta tunnels project was officially downsized Wednesday, as Gov. Jerry Brown’s administration announced it would attempt to build a single tunnel in its effort to re-engineer California’s elaborate water-delivery system.

Unable to secure enough money from California’s water agencies for the original twin tunnels concept, the California Department of Water Resources said it would now try to build the project in phases: one tunnel now and a second tunnel years down the road.

The long-awaited announcement doesn’t appear to immediately solve the financial questions looming over the project, known officially as California WaterFix.

A letter to water agencies from DWR Director Karla Nemeth says the first tunnel would cost $10.7 billion. That’s much less than the price tag for building two tunnels, now officially pegged at $16.3 billion. But the one-tunnel option also is considerably more expensive than the estimated $6 billion to $6.5 billion that’s been pledged so far by participating south-of-Delta water agencies.

The administration, which has been eager to get the project on track before Brown leaves office at year’s end, believes it can convince additional water agencies to pitch in. Wednesday’s announcement is expected to trigger months of horse trading in which enthusiastic backers of the project would commit additional money to WaterFix, essentially “buying out” reluctant water districts.

The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, which has already pledged more than $4 billion to the project, has indicated it might be willing to put more money in. Nemeth said Wednesday she thinks other agencies will contribute, such as the Santa Clara Valley Water District.

“We have information that the benefits are there and there’s enough willing buyers for this first stage of the project,” Nemeth said in an interview.

The state hasn’t completely abandoned the twin-tunnels concept, said spokeswoman Lisa Lien-Mager of the Natural Resources Agency, which oversees DWR. But Wednesday’s announcement gives the state the ability to move quickly on a one-tunnel approach once all permits have been obtained, she said.

Nemeth said DWR will supplement the environmental impact studies conducted on the project to reflect the change in scope, but it won’t have to start that laborious process from scratch and can wrap it up by October.

The phased approach “would allow work to begin on WaterFix, as soon as all necessary environmental review and permits are complete, which is anticipated near the end of 2018,” she wrote.

Critics of the project, including Delta landowners and many environmental groups, say even one tunnel would damage the Delta’s fragile ecosystem. They have vowed to continue fighting WaterFix in court and in regulatory proceedings. They also argue that the necessary environmental analyses must be completely redone, a process that could add a year or more to a project that has already been in the planning stages for a decade.

“We still have all the same issues,” said Russell van Loben Sels, a prominent Delta farmer and tunnels critic. “It creates a whole host of problems for the Delta.”

The anti-tunnels group Restore the Delta said, “We remain convinced that a fifth reiteration of the project will not save ... WaterFix from failure and will ultimately deal a devastating blow to the health of the ailing San Francisco Bay-Delta estuary.”

The announcement acknowledges what had become obvious in recent months: Brown’s administration has been unable to raise the nearly $17 billion necessary to build two tunnels beneath the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. An unofficial count by The Sacramento Bee shows that the south-of-Delta water districts have pledged about $6.5 billion toward the project, and many of those commitments are tentative. Since October, the Brown administration has openly floated the idea of scaling back the project, or building just one tunnel as a first phase.

The tunnels are designed to fix a problem that has festered for decades. Water pumping by the State Water Project and the federal Central Valley Project has irrigated the southern half of the state but caused considerable harm to the Delta’s ecosystem. Several fish species, notably the smelt and Chinook salmon, face possible extinction.

By law, pumping often has to be curtailed or halted altogether to protect the fish, which means water destined for the pumps flows out to sea instead. This requirement has reduced water deliveries to the millions of acres of irrigated farmland that depend on the Delta, as well as the 19 million residential customers of Metropolitan, the largest water agency in the system.

How would WaterFix help? The current pumps are so powerful, they can reverse the natural river flows inside the Delta and draw the fish toward predators and the pumps. By diverting a portion of the Sacramento River at a point near Courtland, at the north end of the Delta, and shipping it through one or more underground tunnels to the pumping stations near Tracy, state officials say the WaterFix project would largely remedy the “reverse flow” problem and make the fish safer.

Critics say diverting water at Courtland, however, would actually worsen the Delta’s ecosystem. It would deprive the estuary of much of the Sacramento River’s fresh water and make the Delta more dependent on the saltier flows from the San Joaquin. That could render much of the land unsuitable for agriculture, they say. Besides, the years of construction “will create absolute chaos ... with either one tunnel or two tunnels or three tunnels or whatever,” van Loben Sels said.

Because of the staggering cost, support for the project has been far from unanimous. Urban agencies can spread the costs among millions of ratepayers; Metropolitan said its customers would pay an extra $3.10 a month. Agricultural districts, however, have only a few hundred farmers and have struggled to justify the costs. Westlands Water District, which serves Central Valley Project farmers in Fresno and Kings counties, flatly rejected the project in September. Its staff had calculated that growers’ costs would jump from $160 an acre-foot to more than $600.

Besides the urban-rural divide, there’s also a split between how WaterFix is regarded by members of the Central Valley Project and the State Water Project. The Bureau of Reclamation, which runs the federal project, instituted a cost-sharing formula that exempted certain major agricultural districts with special water rights. That put more of a financial burden on the remaining districts, and as a result every Central Valley Project member agency has followed Westlands’ lead and sat on the sidelines.

As for the State Water Project, every south-of-Delta agency has been told it must participate – or find another agency to take its share. Metropolitan has said it might put additional dollars into the project, stepping up for other agencies. That would increase its costs but give Metropolitan a greater share of the water that’s shipped through the tunnels.

Metropolitan general manager Jeff Kightlinger said Wednesday the agency isn’t eager to buy a greater share of the tunnels project but will consider it.

“We’ll take a hard look at it, as long as the benefits are commensurate with the costs,” he said. “We’ll have that conversation. It won’t just be Metropolitan.”

Dale Kasler: 916-321-1066, @dakasler

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