Capitol Alert

Legislators approve audit of Gov. Jerry Brown’s water tunnel plan

Delta tunnels battle heats up

One Delta farmer talks about his family history and why he opposes Gov. Jerry Brown's tunnels plan.
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One Delta farmer talks about his family history and why he opposes Gov. Jerry Brown's tunnels plan.

The political conflict over Gov. Jerry Brown’s high-priority plan to place twin water tunnels beneath the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta moved to a new venue Wednesday.

The Legislature’s Joint Audit Committee voted to direct State Auditor Elaine Howle to delve into how the project, dubbed California WaterFix, has spent an estimated quarter-billion dollars on planning and how the state plans to finance its multi-billion-dollar cost.

The audit request came from two legislators who represent portions of the Delta, where opposition to the project is strong – Assemblywoman Susan Talamantes Eggman, D-Stockton, and Sen. Lois Wolk, D-Davis.

“How are we going to pay for it?” Eggman said she wants the audit to determine. “There’s no oversight,” Wolk added.

Brown and other advocates say the tunnels, which would carry Sacramento River water beneath the Delta to the head of the California Aqueduct near Tracy, would improve the Delta as a wildlife habitat and guard against collapse of the Delta’s levees due to sea level rise or earthquake.

Critics, however, say it will deprive the Delta of much-needed flows and damage its habitat. The conveyance, originally proposed as a “peripheral canal” around the Delta, has been a contentious political issue for a half-century.

State water officials, who didn’t oppose the audit, say the tunnels will be financed by agricultural and municipal water agencies in the San Joaquin Valley and Southern California, which have already put up millions of dollars for planning. But estimates of its cost, and how the water agencies would raise the money, are still up in the air.

Currently, the contending forces are battling before the state Water Resources Control Board, which would have to issue permits to divert water from the Sacramento River. The battle is also being waged in other forms, including Proposition 53, a measure on the November ballot.

Proposition 53, financed almost entirely by wealthy Delta farmer Dean Cortopassi, would require votes on any state projects that cost $2 billion or more and financed with revenue bonds.