Delta News

Southern California water agency could vote soon on whether to bankroll Delta tunnels

This area of the Delta, near Walnut Grove, would be affected by construction of the Delta tunnels. The project cost is now pegged at $19.9 billion.
This area of the Delta, near Walnut Grove, would be affected by construction of the Delta tunnels. The project cost is now pegged at $19.9 billion. rbenton@sacbee.com

Facing pressure from Gov. Jerry Brown, Southern California’s largest water agency could vote as soon as April on whether to take a majority stake in the twin-tunnels project Brown plans for the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

The fast-track timeline was disclosed Tuesday at a committee of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, which heard a report from staff members about the benefits, risks and financing possibilities of the agency agreeing to pay the majority of the costs in a twin tunnels system.

Lacking the $16.7 billion needed to fund both tunnels at once, Brown’s administration earlier this month said it was going to phase in the project, starting with one tunnel for an estimated $11.1 billion. A second tunnel could get built years later if the rest of the dollars materialize.

In response, some of Metropolitan’s board members asked the agency’s staff to explore whether it made sense for Metropolitan to step up and pay for both tunnels at once, absorbing the share of costs that were supposed to come from farmers in the San Joaquin Valley, who balked after seeing how much their water rates would rise. Tuesday’s meeting provided the first glimpse of what officials had in mind.

Jeff Kightlinger, Metropolitan’s general manager, said Brown met recently with water officials representing the various groups that would take water from the tunneling project known as California WaterFix. The governor urged them to take action, but stressed that he didn’t want Metropolitan’s discussions to delay the one-tunnel proposal.

“The governor did say we need to get moving,” Kightlinger said.

The urgency didn’t sit well with at least some board members.

“You don’t dive into a creek until you know whether you’re on rocks or not, and that’s what we’re trying to do here,” said Larry Dick, a board member representing Orange County. Still, it was clear that staff members, including Kightlinger, believed the benefits of building two tunnels at once were substantial.

They pointed to being able to take more water through the Delta during rainy winters when the rivers are ranging. Having two tunnels in place also would give the agency more options to buy supplies from water-rich Northern California sellers, according to staff members. They said the tunneling system would also prevent further harm to the Delta’s declining fish populations.

Currently, the pumps at the southern end of the Delta are so powerful, they can reverse the natural river flows and draw the fish toward predators and the pumps. By diverting a portion of the Sacramento River at a point near Courtland, at the north end of the Delta, and shipping it through underground tunnels to the pumping stations near Tracy, state officials say the WaterFix project would largely remedy the “reverse flow” problem and make the fish safer.

The financing and how the system would work with Metropolitan owning most of the project was more of a sticking point. Kightlinger said Metropolitan’s lawyers are currently negotiating with the state on assurances that it could set the rates it would charge to the agencies that would essentially rent space in the tunnels to ship water south. Kightlinger said negotiations also are under way among the various south-of-Delta water users about acquiring options to buy into the tunnels at a later date.

While many San Joaquin Valley farmers haven’t pledged money, urban agencies have largely embraced WaterFix because they can spread the costs over millions of ratepayers; Metropolitan believes its 19 million customers would get rate increases of $1.90 to $2.40 a month for its share of a single-tunnel project.

The costs for Metropolitan to absorb the agricultural agencies’ share are substantial – raising the price the agency would pay from $5.2 billion to around $11 billion, said Roger Patterson, Metropolitan’s assistant general manager. Other contractors on the State Water Project would pay the rest of the project’s $16.7 billion pricetag.

Environmental groups who attended the meeting urged the agency to kill the idea.

“It’s even more shocking that Met is even now considering not just building a single tunnel but also funding the farmers’ share on the backs of ratepayers,” said Brenna Norton of Food and Water Watch.

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