Dan Walters

Dan Walters: New water bond could make Delta tunnels unnecessary

Dan Walters
Dan Walters

As Gov. Jerry Brown and legislative leaders hammered out a water bond deal last week, one very high priority was making it “tunnel-neutral.”

In a way, that’s a bit odd, since Brown has hoped that boring twin water tunnels beneath the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta would be one of his legacies.

However, the decades-old proposal to bypass the Delta in water deliveries to the San Joaquin Valley and Southern California is highly controversial, and were the bond measure’s projects to be obviously connected, it could easily doom passage on Nov. 4.

Notwithstanding the artful drafting, some opponents of the project still see a connection and may mount a campaign along those lines against the bond if they can raise some serious campaign money.

Considering the $7.5 billion water package as a whole, including a new $7.1 billion bond, an argument could be made, however, that it reduces the need for the tunnels, perhaps to the point of eliminating it.

The tunnels would not, as their critics allege, greatly increase the amount of Northern California water shipped southward.

Their primary purpose would be to increase the reliability of those transfers to San Joaquin Valley farms and Southern California’s thirsty hordes by bypassing the environmentally damaged Delta.

Quietly, however, Southern California’s water agencies, principally those receiving water via the region’s Metropolitan Water District, have been increasing local reliability and reducing their long-term need for Northern California water.

They’ve built new reservoirs and expanded old reservoirs; the San Diego County Water Authority just added 152,000 acre-feet by raising one of its dams, for example.

They’ve instituted strict conservation programs. And they’ve sought new sources, such as treating wastewater to drinking water standards, cleaning up polluted groundwater, capturing storm runoff, and even desalinating seawater.

The new water package contains $2.7 billion for more storage to serve statewide needs, but one proposed project could supply San Joaquin Valley farms without involving the Delta.

The rest of the package is very oriented toward grants to local and regional water agencies to capture more, store more, conserve more, and treat more, thus improving reliability and indirectly reducing reliance on the Delta and pressure on its fragile environment.

As the Delta’s role in California’s water supply picture diminishes, it not only reduces the hydrological rationale for the tunnels, but the financial one as well.

The big agricultural and municipal water agencies that have informally pledged to pay for the tunnels were already having trouble justifying their immense cost, given their small projected water yield. The improved supply and reliability from a “tunnel-neutral” water bond could tip the financial equation against them.

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