Why years of waiting may be over on Delta tunnels

Love it or hate it, the Delta tunnels project is reaching a decision point.

The state’s most powerful water agencies have set a September goal to decide whether they’re going pay for the biggest and most controversial water project California has undertaken since the 1960s: overhauling the plumbing system that pumps billions of gallons of water through the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to the Bay Area, Southern California and one of the nation’s most productive farm belts.

After more than a decade and nearly a quarter billion dollars of study and planning, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California and other agencies will vote in September on whether to pay for Gov. Jerry Brown’s $15.5 billion plan for re-engineering the fragile estuary on Sacramento’s doorstep.

“Now we’re within 90 days of actually making a decision on whether the project is going to go forward or not,” said ​Roger Patterson, assistant general manager at Metropolitan, the influential water wholesaler serving half of the state’s population from its headquarters in Los Angeles.

What Metropolitan and water agencies in Silicon Valley, Fresno, Bakersfield and beyond decide is going to have sweeping ramifications across California. Ratepayers in Southern California and Silicon Valley could see a hit in their monthly water bills. In the San Joaquin Valley, farmers who’ve seen their water supplies decline sharply over the decades to protect endangered Delta fish will decide whether Brown’s promise of more reliable deliveries is worth cutting into their profits. Brown’s administration said the tunnels will improve the Delta ecosystem. That will allow the Delta water pumps to operate with fewer interruptions, even though the total volume of deliveries isn’t expected to increase.

In greater Sacramento and throughout the Delta, farmers, environmental groups and elected officials remain deeply mistrustful of the proposal. They call it a “water grab” by moneyed and politically powerful interests bent on siphoning more of Northern California’s water. By routing some of the Sacramento River’s flow directly to massive government pumping stations in the south Delta, they say the tunnels will cut into north state water supplies and do greater harm to native fish species on the brink of extinction.

Delta-area attorneys have promised a nasty court fight if the tunnels, known officially as California WaterFix, get the go-ahead.

“Hopefully, somebody will figure out that this isn’t worth it and it doesn’t solve the problems, but we’ll see,” said John Herrick, a Stockton attorney for the South Delta Water Agency. “This is the year a lot of big decisions will be made. We’re still hoping it will collapse.”

The timetables for a decision firmed up after Brown’s chief of staff, Nancy McFadden, recently told representatives of the water agencies that they need to decide soon whether they’re willing to pay for the tunnels. Brown leaves office next year.

Her message found a receptive audience. Officials with urban and agricultural water districts say they’re ready soon to render a verdict on a project that would be costly but is advertised as the antidote to unreliable water deliveries out of the Delta.

“There’s a lot of frustration with 10-plus years of work, (but) there’s also optimism that we’re looking at a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” said Jason Peltier of the San Luis & Delta-Mendota Water Authority, which serves farmers throughout much of the San Joaquin Valley and urban customers in Silicon Valley. “Momentum is definitely building.”

Officials with the Santa Clara Valley Water District in San Jose and the Kern County Water Agency in Bakersfield said they, too, plan to have their boards of directors vote in September on the plan.

Santa Clara spokesman Marty Grimes said the board is scheduled to get a briefing in early July on “water supply benefits and uncertainties,” followed in August by an analysis of design, construction and governance of the twin tunnels. In early September, the agency’s staff will deliver details on cost, financing and water allocation, along with a recommendation on whether or not Santa Clara should participate in the project.

“We are confident that the boards of directors of the public water agencies that depend upon the projects will have sufficient information to decide this summer and fall whether to invest in WaterFix,” said Nancy Vogel, spokeswoman for the California Natural Resources Agency.

The countdown toward a decision could start as early as next week. That’s when two federal agencies in charge of safeguarding the estuary’s dwindling populations of Delta smelt and other fish are expected to release the official “biological opinions” on the projected environmental impacts of the tunnels, and whether the project needs to be reworked.

The data from those two scientific reports will allow the state to provide more detail about how much water the tunnels are expected to deliver. Preliminary versions of the opinions, released earlier this year, cast some doubt on Brown’s argument that the tunnels will improve the lives of smelt, Chinook salmon and other fish.

Although the plan could improve fish ecosystems in some respects, the tunnels could still “decrease the abundance of Delta smelt,” the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service wrote. The National Marine Fisheries Service said the tunnels could create “numerous adverse impacts” to salmon habitat.

Brown’s plan is the most significant rework of California’s water-delivery network since his father, Gov. Pat Brown, built the State Water Project in the 1960s. The project calls for altering how water from the Sacramento River reaches the giant pumping stations operated by the federal and state governments near Tracy.

The pumps are so powerful that they can reverse the flow of crucial Delta river channels, pulling fish toward the pumps and hungry predatory fish that await them at the intakes. Water deliveries are often curtailed to reduce fish kills, a huge point of contention during California’s epic five-year drought that Brown declared over this winter.

The tunnels plan calls for burrowing two 40-foot-wide tunnels, starting just south of Sacramento near Courtland, to divert a portion of the river’s flow and ship it directly to the Tracy pumps.

That would significantly reduce the “reverse flow” caused by the pumps, state officials say. Should the agencies agree to pay for the tunnels, there are several other regulatory steps that are still looming. The State Water Resources Control Board currently is overseeing a months-long set of hearings over whether the project harms water users and the environment. The board’s votes remain months away.

Ryan Sabalow: 916-321-1264, @ryansabalow