Critical permits and legal challenges are still pending, and some farming groups still haven’t committed to paying for part of Gov. Jerry Brown’s controversial $17 billion Delta tunnels project.
But even with the uncertainty, backers of the project are poised to ask the Trump administration for a $1.6 billion federal loan that millions of Californians ultimately would have to repay through increases in their water bills.
On Thursday, the just-formed Delta Conveyance Finance Authority, led by the regional water agencies backing the tunnels project, is expected to start the application process for a $1.6 billion federal water infrastructure loan administered by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Congress set up the loan program in 2014 to spur upgrades to the nation’s aging system of irrigation projects and dams.
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The loan would represent a significant milestone for the project, which has been in the planning phase for nearly a decade, said Jeff Kightlinger, general manager of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, which delivers Delta water to 19 million people in the south state.
“We’re going to be issuing contracts in the next few months, and we’re going to be spending some real money,” Kightlinger said. “If we get this loan now, we’re moving from millions into billions (of dollars). That’s real.” Metropolitan and other agencies have spent a combined $200 million planning the tunnels.
Other hurdles remain before machines can start boring the 30-mile path under the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.
Most San Joaquin Valley farmers haven’t agreed to pay into the project. A state board also has yet to issue a key permit required to start construction; dozens of lawsuits against the tunnels are pending.
Brown’s office says WaterFix will shore up deliveries of Northern California river water to the south state while reducing the environmental harm done to the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, the hub of the state’s water-delivery network
The project is fiercely opposed by Sacramento area politicians, Delta farmers and fishing and environmental groups.
Tunnels opponent Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla of Restore the Delta said she was troubled that the repayment plan under the loan doesn’t start for at least five years after the project is finished.
“Our grandchildren and great-grandchildren will be footing the bill for dry tunnels when investments should have been made in sustainable water projects for their communities,” she said.
Meanwhile, Brown’s office on Tuesday said it has tweaked the design of the tunnels to reduce environmental impacts to Delta communities, wetlands and fish.
Under the new design, revealed in an environmental impact report, the state Department of Water Resources said the twin 40-foot-wide tunnels will be realigned to avoid the town of Hood and municipal water wells. The town sits at the north end of the Delta, near the spot where water will be diverted from the Sacramento River and drawn into the tunnels.
At the south end of the Delta, the state said it will create a new reservoir near the town of Byron, eliminating the need to expand the two-mile wide holding pond known as Clifton Court Forebay that sits below the state’s massive Delta pumping plant. The state said the change will reduce harms to wetlands and endangered salmon and Delta smelt.
U.S. Rep. John Garamendi, D-Walnut Grove, an opponent of the project, said the state had merely put “lipstick on this pig by making cosmetic modifications.”