Delta News

New entity to manage planning for massive Delta tunnels

Construction planning for the giant water diversion tunnels proposed in the California Delta is about to be handed off to a new entity, one that gives a prominent role to the water diverters that will benefit from the project.

The California Department of Water Resources, which has led the project engineering so far, has agreed to start sharing that duty in a joint powers arrangement with the water agencies it serves, including the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California and the Kern County Water Agency.

The arrangement will be operational as of June 1, according to a memo sent to employees last week by DWR Director Mark Cowin.

“It’s past conceptual at this point,” Cowin said in an interview. “We’ve come to agreement on some principles on how we can move forward.”

The tunnel project is the centerpiece of Gov. Jerry Brown’s plan to improve water deliveries from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, a source of water for 25 million people and 3 million acres of farmland across the state. The project, slated for approval by the end of this year, calls for building three large water intakes on the Sacramento River near Courtland. These would feed two tunnels, each 40 feet in diameter and 150 feet underground, that would divert the water to existing state and federal diversion canals near Tracy.

The tunnels are the largest piece of hardware in the Bay Delta Conservation Plan, a $25 billion proposal to balance water demand and environmental protection in the Delta, the largest estuary on the West Coast of the Americas. The plan also calls for restoring 100,000 acres of habitat to benefit endangered species, including Delta smelt and Chinook salmon.

Critics of the tunnels fear that allowing the water diverters to take a major role in planning the construction will translate into less concern for the hardships facing Delta residents, who must endure the project’s extensive environmental impacts. This includes condemning thousands of acres for the project, which will dislocate dozens of farms and families.

“From a practical standpoint, their accountability is to their ratepayers,” said Osha Meserve, an attorney who represents a variety of Delta property owners. “Their main concern is trying to reduce costs. But that’s not in our interest.”

She argued that DWR should retain control of the project independently, because it has a duty to represent everyone in the state, not just the water contractors.

“The more we see this getting delegated out, the more we worry,” Meserve said. “To what extent is DWR really an independent department that is accountable to the population of the state at this point?”

Cowin said DWR worked carefully to retain ultimate authority over the new entity, which will be called the “Design and Construction Enterprise.” It will be managed by a consultant hired by DWR, and staffed by DWR employees, as well as employees of the water contractors and other consultants. The DWR director will hold ultimate veto power over any decisions, and bids will be awarded to contractors using DWR’s existing legal authorities.

“It’s a bit of a hybrid, and that’s why it’s going to take some time to make it work,” he said. “An essential thing in this potential organization is that DWR retain its decision-making authority.”

The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California is expected to take a major role in designing and planning the tunnels, Cowin said, because it has recent experience in building a water tunnel through the San Bernardino Mountains.

The controversial task of land acquisition will remain in DWR’s hands. “It’s something we recognize there is a lot of public concern about,” Cowin said.

The Design and Construction Enterprise is intended to function only until the tunnels are operational – after a decadelong construction process – and then be dissolved. The tunnels will be owned and operated by DWR, through a complex governance structure that also gives the water contractors a significant role.

Though the new entity is about three weeks from becoming active, Cowin said there is still no formal agreement between DWR and the water contractors on how it will operate. Crucial details about how routine decisions are made have not been finalized.

He said there will be an opportunity for public input on the new entity before it begins operating. It also is expected to follow state law concerning public records and access to meetings, said Roger Patterson, assistant general manager at the Metropolitan Water District.

Patterson said the new entity is important to the water contractors, which will have to make huge investments to begin building the tunnels.

“Our interest is being able to have participation, since we’re putting up money for it,” said Patterson, whose agency delivers water to nearly 19 million people in six Southern California counties. “Wherever the best experience is, let’s make them available to this office. We want to be prepared to go, because time matters.”