Editorial: Water storage, conveyance projects abound

Last week’s rain notwithstanding, the drought should act to concentrate Californians on water and how to create a reliable water system.

Instead, it is spawning isolated proposals with little attention to cost and who would pay.

In one direction, Gov. Jerry Brown favors a new “conveyance” with his proposed twin tunnels project. The capital cost of the two 40-foot-diameter, 30-mile-long tunnels around or under the Delta is estimated to total $19.9 billion in 2012 dollars. Borne by whom? People benefiting from the project, the water contractors south of the Delta? The comment period on this proposal ends on June 13.

In another direction, Reps. John Garamendi, D-Walnut Grove, and Doug LaMalfa, R-Richvale, favor an emphasis on storage. They propose congressional authorization of a new Sites offstream reservoir to store water pumped from the Sacramento River in Colusa County. This would require flooding the Antelope Valley and constructing two dams up to 310 feet high and nine smaller saddle dams.

LaMalfa and Garamendi are offering the first bipartisan proposal of the year, which is significant, although much needs to be fleshed out, not the least of which is who would pay the roughly $4 billion cost.

The bill states support for “non-Federal investments in water infrastructure,” meaning someone else would pay. There is no federal money for construction. Rather, water users would own and operate the facility. The bill also would allow the state to build the facility.

The legislation calls for a feasibility study and environmental impact study to be done by June 30, 2015, and urges the federal government to establish agreements with local authorities to pay for the studies.

The advocates of these two very different approaches do not seem to be coordinating with each other. We would be better off trying to solve California’s very real water problems through collaboration.

And no one is confronting the issue of cost, which makes any proposal a candidate for fantasy land. Local users are still repaying the cost of the Central Valley Project and State Water Project.

Whether it is tunnels or dams, all the interests want water but want someone else to pay. If the beneficiaries south of the Delta have to pay the costs, will they buy the tunnels or the dams?

In the old days, Govs. Pat Brown and Ronald Reagan laid down the law that water projects would be paid for by the beneficiaries. Now, it seems, interests look to a water bond bill as “free money.” Even that is no sure thing. The Legislature tried to place an $11 billion water bond on the ballot in 2009 but postponed it due to lack of voter support. Legislators are negotiating a new water bond potentially for this November’s ballot.

The diverging proposals from the governor and members of Congress should generate a serious discussion about the priorities for any future state bonds.

The primary reason for our decades-long deadlock over water has been cost.

As the state, the feds and various interest groups work through that, they also should be asking how the state can make more effective use of existing storage, and what more can be done to improve water conservation and groundwater recharge and storage.

Importantly, the policymakers need to recommit to the idea that water projects will be financed primarily by beneficiaries.

Update: The public comment period for the Draft Bay Delta Conservation Plan was extended by 60 days to June 13. The public review draft documents are available online at www.BayDeltaConservationPlan.com.