Clearly, Gov. Jerry Brown wants to cement the Delta tunnels as part of his legacy before leaving office.
But his administration shouldn’t try to shove through this monumental, $20 billion project without adequate review and debate.
Critics say that’s precisely what is happening at a hearing Tuesday of the Joint Legislative Budget Committee. They say that a proposal to extend long-term contracts for the State Water Project for another 50 years will pave the way to financing the tunnels under the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.
This is the same meeting that was scheduled for the next-to-last day of the legislative session, and then canceled at the last minute after howls of protest. Now it’s on again while the Legislature is in recess. It’s a procedural hearing where the budget committee doesn’t have to actually vote, only listen to the department’s plan.
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Opponents of the tunnels point to a proposed contract amendment that removes a restriction that bonds that get financed through the contracts cannot be used for any project built after 1987. They also cite a clause that deletes a requirement for consensus among water contractors to approve contracts, which they say could allow a majority to force others to pay for the tunnels. And they say the new contracts could obligate water districts and their ratepayers to raise property taxes if water rates don’t bring in enough.
Not so, says the Department of Water Resources. It insists that extending the contracts does not obligate the state to pay for the tunnels and has “little to do” with the project at all.
If that’s the case, then the department should put it in writing and erase any doubt.
That reassurance would not get in the way of what the department says is the actual purpose of the contact extensions: To lower the cost of issuing revenue bonds to upgrade, repair and maintain aging infrastructure in the State Water Project, the 700-mile network of reservoirs, aqueducts and pumping plants that supplies water to more than 27 million Californians and irrigates about 750,000 acres of farmland. The repairs include rebuilding the damaged spillway at Oroville Dam.
The current contracts start expiring in 2035, and DWR says extending them will make borrowing less expensive – just like a monthly payment is lower on a 30-year mortgage than a 15-year home loan. Though the department says the current contracts already authorize bonds to build the tunnels if the project moves forward, that interpretation is also in dispute.
The contract extensions are supported by a coalition of more than 40 groups, including Southern California water districts, the California Chamber and Silicon Valley Leadership Group.
Critics, however, say a lot of questions need to be answered before moving ahead, including an environmental review of the contract amendments.
They also want Tuesday’s hearing delayed until after a study is done on the impact of a proposed new allocation plan for water in the San Joaquin River, and one about to be released for the Sacramento River watershed, on water flows through the Delta and through the tunnels. And they want a new economic analysis based on that information to see whether the tunnels, known officially as California WaterFix, pencil out.
That certainly seems like information that is necessary before deciding how to proceed with the tunnels, even if those decisions must be made by the next governor and Legislature. As DWR points out, the project still requires state and federal permits — a lengthy process that will likely also be tied up in the courts.
As we’ve said, despite all the controversy surrounding the tunnels, there needs to be a much broader debate on how to secure California’s water future in an era of climate change.
But unnecessary maneuvers like Tuesday’s hearing only deepen distrust, harden opposition to the tunnels and get in the way of that needed discussion.