Water & Drought

Don’t force us to pay for Delta tunnels, Valley farmers say

How the tunnel project might affect Delta landowners

Courtland farmer Russ van Loben Sels describes how the local landscape could change if the twin tunnels plan comes to fruition.
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Courtland farmer Russ van Loben Sels describes how the local landscape could change if the twin tunnels plan comes to fruition.

Already short of funding, Gov. Jerry Brown’s Delta tunnels project is being challenged in court by a bloc of San Joaquin Valley farmers insisting they shouldn’t be forced to help foot the $17.1 billion price tag.

The valley farmers, located mainly in Kern and Kings counties, voiced their objections in a Sacramento court filing opposing the Brown administration’s plan to issue bonds to pay for the tunnels.

The court filing presents another obstacle for the massive infrastructure project, known officially as California WaterFix. It has been struggling to gain financial support from the water agencies south of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta that the state was relying on to help.

The project has already fallen short of its funding needs by at least $6 billion, as agricultural customers of the federal government’s Central Valley Project have chosen en masse not to participate. State officials and other supporters have responded by suggesting the project could be downsized substantially or built in phases.

Now the funding gap could increase. The opposition this time comes from farmers who belong to the State Water Project. In contrast to the federal system, the Brown administration has said all customers of the State Water Project must contribute to California WaterFix – or get another state customer to take their place.

A large group of Kern County farmers tentatively pledged support for the tunnels in October, totaling about $1 billion. But other growers at the southern end of the valley aren’t willing to participate and haven’t found anyone to replace them.

In general, farmers who grow high-value tree crops such as almonds and pistachios are more inclined to support WaterFix. But row-crop farmers, whose revenues aren’t as high, are resisting.

“We want the project to succeed (but) just need to ensure that folks who can’t afford it have an exit strategy,” said Robert Kunde, manager of the Wheeler-Ridge-Maricopa Water Storage District in the southern end of Kern County. “Particularly for row-crop growers, it’s really hard to make the economics work. Obviously a grower who grows carrots in Wheeler Ridge...couldn’t afford a doubling of their water bill.”

State officials called the farmers’ legal filing just another step in the years-long process of getting the tunnels built.

“Project partners are engaged in working through the details of successfully implementing California WaterFix,” said Lisa Lien-Mager, a spokeswoman for the state Natural Resources Agency, in an email.

Farmers said they’re serious about preserving their right to opt out of the project.

“We had to file, just to protect our interests,” said manager Dale Melville of the Dudley Ridge Water District in Kings County.

Melville said Dudley Ridge growers – which include Paramount Farming, a grower of pistachios for agribusiness tycoon Stewart Resnick’s Wonderful brand – might be willing to contribute to WaterFix at some financial level. But they probably don’t want a full “share.”

A total of 18 water districts filed objections in Sacramento Superior Court, where the state is pursuing a lawsuit to confirm that it has the authority to issue WaterFix bonds.

Brown’s administration says the tunnels are needed to rescue the Delta’s deteriorating ecosystem, while improving water deliveries to the south state. As things stand now, pumping often gets throttled back in order to protect endangered fish species, allowing water that would otherwise be delivered to the south state to wash out to the ocean. The Brown administration says that by rerouting how water flows to the massive Delta pumps, the tunnels 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. Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla of the anti-tunnels group Restore the Delta said the farmers’ reluctance to ante up is a sign that the concerns opponents have about the tunnels go beyond water-quality issues.

“Big farmers are smart businessmen,” she said. “They’re not going to invest big money and equipment in a project that doesn’t produce. ... It really is a poor business decision for anyone (in California).”

Meanwhile, the State Water Resources Control Board is pressing ahead with marathon water-rights hearings required to get the tunnels started, even as the project faces uncertainty. Board members have decided to continue with the hearings because the Brown administration and the federal government haven’t notified the board of any change in plans.

To build the tunnels, the state and federal government need the water board’s permission to divert water from the Sacramento River at a spot near Courtland, where the tunnels would begin. The tunnels would carry a portion of the river’s flow approximately 40 miles to the giant pumping stations near Tracy.

Dale Kasler: 916-321-1066, @dakasler