Delta News

State moves step closer to downsizing Delta tunnels project

California officials have moved closer to scaling back the troubled Delta tunnels project, officially notifying potential construction contractors that they’re considering limiting the project to one tunnel.

In a memo to engineering firms and other contract bidders last Friday, the Department of Water Resources said it is considering building the tunnels project in phases, with the first phase consisting of “one main tunnel instead of two.”

Gov. Jerry Brown’s administration has been floating the idea of a downsized tunnels proposal since October, when funding problems became increasingly evident. Major farm irrigator Westlands Water District refused to help pay for the $17.1 billion project. Then the Santa Clara Valley Water District said it would only consider investing in a lower-cost, phased-in project that starts with a single tunnel.

Although Santa Clara didn’t shut the door on supporting a second tunnel eventually, its refusal to offer Brown’s plan a full-fledged endorsement was pivotal. Brown was counting on Santa Clara because it’s a major Northern California agency that serves 1.9 million customers. Most of the other agencies that would pull water from the tunnels, and would pay for construction, are in the San Joaquin Valley and urban Southern California.

All told, the project, known officially as California WaterFix, is probably about $6 billion short of being fully funded. The only water agencies that have agreed to pay for WaterFix are members of the State Water Project. Not a single member of the federal Central Valley Project has joined in.

Tunnels advocates said they believe DWR is getting closer to making a definitive decision to convert WaterFix to a one-tunnel project. “Decisions are going to be made at the end of this month, first part of February on how we’re going to have to move forward with the project,” said deputy general manager Roger Patterson of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, one of the major backers of WaterFix.

Scientists say decades of pumping Northern California’s water through the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to south state agencies has significantly contributed to the decline in the estuary’s fragile ecosystem.

To protect species of nearly extinct fish, pumping often gets throttled back, allowing water that would otherwise be pumped to wash out to the ocean. The Brown administration says that by rerouting how water flows to the massive pumps through the tunnels, the tunnels project would protect fish and enable pumping to proceed more reliably.

Many environmentalists, Delta farmers and others say the WaterFix project would bring even more harm to the Delta – and they aren’t mollified with a one-tunnel approach.

Opponents also say the single-tunnel project is fundamentally different than what was originally proposed, and would require a fresh set of environmental review and other regulatory permits, which could mean months of costly delays. That would include a reboot of marathon water-rights hearings currently underway at the State Water Resources Control Board, which oversees the California’s system of water rights.

“It’s a substantial change. It cuts the project in half,” said Assemblyman Jim Frazier, D-Discovery Bay. “You don’t know what ... havoc this project will create. Everything is an assumption of what they’re doing here.”

But tunnels advocates say scaling back to a single tunnel shouldn’t require further study because a single-tunnel approach was explored in environmental reviews that have been approved by state and federal regulators.

The water board has been holding hearings on the tunnels since 2016, and they’re slated to resume on Thursday. Water board spokesman Tim Moran said board members are well aware that Brown’s office has been in talks with water contractors about downsizing the project, but until they hear from Brown that a change has been decided, they’ll continue forging ahead as if it’s still two tunnels.

Dale Kasler: 916-321-1066, @dakasler

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