Delta tunnels battle heats up
A powerful Southern California water agency voted Tuesday to cover two-thirds of the cost of building the controversial Delta tunnels in one of the most significant California water actions in decades.
If you're confused about what's going on, or maybe just need a refresher course, here are some answers to your questions about the $16.7 billion project on Sacramento's doorstep that just took a giant step closer to reality.
So this means the tunnels are a done deal, right?
The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California's agreement to bankroll $10.8 billion of the project's total cost was a critical step for a project that had struggled to get funded, but there are a few more hurdles before shovels hit the ground.
The biggest barrier is a water-rights hearing that began in 2016 before the State Water Resources Control Board. Its members, all appointed by Gov. Jerry Brown, oversee California's complicated water-rights system and must decide whether the tunnels project is allowed to divert water from the Sacramento River at a spot near Courtland — the point where the tunnels would begin.
The hearings are expected to conclude in June, with a ruling to follow.
Lawsuits are another barrier. At least 58 tunnels opponents, including Sacramento-area governments, fishing groups and a Native American tribe, are suing under California's environmental protection law. Many of those same opponents filed lawsuits challenging the plan's financial arrangements. And in late February, many of these groups filed a fresh lawsuit saying the water board broke state law by secretly meeting with state and federal officials about the project.
"It's really not over," said Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla of Restore the Delta, one of the tunnels' most vocal critics.
So construction won't start until 2019 at the earliest, and only if the water board rules favorably and no judges issue injunctions blocking the project. Meanwhile, it's going to take at least 15 years for the project to get built.
What is the Delta anyway, and why is Metropolitan so keen on it?
Officially called the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta (or sometimes "the Bay Delta"), it's the point where the Sacramento River meets the San Joaquin. It starts just south of Sacramento and extends nearly to the Pacific Ocean below the Golden Gate Bridge.
Before settlers drained it and channelized its waters, the delta was a vast tidal marsh that expanded each rainy season and shrank during the Central Valley's hot summers. Now it's a 700-mile labyrinth of engineered sloughs and waterways surrounding more than 60 tracts and islands used mainly for growing grapes, pears and other crops.
The West Coast's largest estuary, the delta is the hub of California's massive water delivery network. Between the 1940s and 1960s, the state and federal governments built massive pumping stations on the delta's southern edge near Tracy. When you drive on Interstate 5 south of Tracy, you spend hour after hour passing orchards that are kept green with water pumped from the delta.
At the same time, 25 million people in the Bay Area and Southern California receive water provided by those pumps. Thirty percent of the water Metropolitan provides its 19 million customers comes from the delta.
What would the tunnels do?
All that pumping has been linked to a precipitous decline in fish populations, particularly the critically endangered delta smelt and winter-run Chinook salmon.
The pumping stations are so powerful, they can cause the currents in the southern delta to flow backward. Those "reverse flows" mess with aquatic habitats and confuse migrating fish, which follow the backward currents to the pumping stations, predatory fish and their inevitable doom. To comply with the Endangered Species Act and protect the fish, pumping is often throttled back, allowing water that would otherwise head to farms and cities to flow to the ocean.
The tunnels, known officially as California WaterFix, are designed to prevent those reverse flows by largely disconnecting the pumping stations from the south delta and linking them to the Sacramento River far to the north. A pair of giant underground pipes, 40 feet wide, would ship a portion of the river's flow by gravity to the pumps 35 miles away.
By having water deposited on their doorstep, the pumps wouldn't have to work so hard and the "reverse flow" phenomenon would be abated. Pumping could proceed with fewer interruptions, improving the reliability of water deliveries to the south. Proponents say they don't intend to take any more water from the delta than they already do, but without the tunnels, south-of-delta water agencies would eventually face crippling shortages as the estuary's environmental woes get worse.
Metropolitan and other south-of-delta interests say the tunnels also will serve an important role as the climate warms because California will need to do a better job capturing huge gulps of water in limited windows when rivers run high. The clean, fresh water in the Sacramento River also is of much higher quality than the often-brackish waters in the south delta. Tunnels proponents say having access to that water will be especially important as sea levels rise and push more saltwater into the estuary.
Why the big hurry to start now?
The project has been on the drawing board for a decade, but Brown will leave office at year's end. It's not at all clear his successor will share his zeal for completing the project.
Brown has been a supporter of some sort of delta "conveyance" for decades. During his first turn as governor, he advocated for a "peripheral canal," an above-ground passageway that would have served essentially the same role as the tunnels. Voters killed the plan in 1982, dealing Brown and his family's legacy a major blow.
In the 1960s, Brown's father, Gov. Pat Brown, got the State Water Project built, bringing water stored in Lake Oroville through the delta and down to Southern California and parts of the San Joaquin Valley.
On the eve of Tuesday's vote, Jerry Brown urged Metropolitan to finance the majority share of the project. It was reminiscent of 1960, when Pat Brown convinced the reluctant agency to support the State Water Project.
So this means Metropolitan is going to effectively run the delta, right?
While Metropolitan has agreed to pay for the bulk of the project, the state and federal governments will still own the delta pumps, and the state Department of Water Resources will control the tunnels. The agencies say they will continue to control how much water is pumped and abide by all environmental laws, ensuring the system won't be abused.
Metropolitan won't have its hands on the knobs that control the state and federal water delivery systems, but it will have substantial sway in how some of the other south-of-delta water agencies route water through the tunnels. That could lead to tensions among farm agencies that haven't pitched in money for the project but still need delta water.
Here's how: Metropolitan will be a toll keeper of sorts. By financing two-thirds of the project, it will control far more tunnel capacity than it needs for its own customers. Metropolitan plans to recoup its costs by selling or leasing that excess capacity to San Joaquin Valley farmers who, fearful of the tunnels' price tag, have refused to pay up for the project.
No deals have yet been made, and no one is sure how they will be structured, but Metropolitan is counting on a healthy market for tunnel capacity some day. Metropolitan believes farmers who don't pay for WaterFix's construction could find themselves in a bind as their water deliveries from the delta diminish, and will turn to Metropolitan for help.
Jeff Kightlinger, Metropolitan's general manager, said his agency won't charge farmers a sky-high rate, because it has "to comply with all laws and rate-setting requirements."
Metropolitan already is a key landowner in the delta. Two years ago, it spent $175 million to buy five agricultural islands that sit atop the proposed tunnels route in the hopes of speeding construction along.
Tunnels' foes aren't giving up, are they?
Not even close. "I'm going to be at this till I retire," said Barrigan-Parrilla, 55, who has been fighting WaterFix for a decade.
Delta farmers, environmentalists and north state politicians despise the project, which they call a blatant "water grab." They don't believe that south-of-delta interests would spend all those billions of dollars just to maintain access to the same amount of water they currently get.
Opponents also flatly reject the notion that the project won't harm delta farmers or the environment. They say regulators have a long history of neglecting the environment to supply the thirsty south state.
Barrigan-Parrilla said that, aside from the plethora of lawsuits already filed challenging the case on environmental grounds, Metropolitan's decision Tuesday to finance the farmers' share of the project could violate Proposition 218.
That's a 1996 ballot initiative that ties water rates to the cost of serving an agency's own customers. By raising its rates to assist farmers outside Metropolitan's service territory, the agency could be overcharging its customers illegally, she said.
In the shorter term, she's holding out hope that the state water board will rule against the project after its hearings conclude in June.
"Even if the water board is composed of appointees from the Brown administration, I believe these are fair-minded people," she said.