Opinion Columns & Blogs

Editorial: Big obstacle for Delta tunnel project -- who will pay for it?

When it comes to water policy, Gov. Jerry Brown’s motto seems to be “tunnels or bust.” Increasingly, as costs and questions pile up, “bust” looks like a possible outcome.

Sometime next month, water contractors and the Brown administration are expected to release a draft environmental impact report for the Bay Delta Conservation Plan. This hefty tome will likely be heralded as an important milestone in pushing forward BDCP’s plans to restore Delta habitat and build a pair of tunnels under the estuary to ship Sacramento River water to the south.

But what’s missing from the plan will be as important as what it contains.

To address concerns raised by state and federal fisheries agencies, BDCP officials have agreed to reduce the tunnel project’s expected initial yield – the amount of water that can be exported yearly to Southern California, the San Joaquin Valley and other water contractors south of the Delta. Previously, the project was expected to generate 5.3million acre-feet of water in an average year – more than contractors have recently been receiving under restrictions imposed by the Endangered Species Act.

But because such exports would reduce outflow in the Delta, further harming threatened fisheries and raising the ire of environmental regulators, that number has been scaled back to 4.8million acre-feet.

This is still a huge volume of water – enough to supply nearly 10million homes or irrigate 4.8million acres of farmland with a foot of water for a year. But it also is roughly what contractors have been receiving in recent years.

So that raises a question. The tunnel project will cost roughly $15billion to build, and likely more with inevitable cost overruns. Water contractors are slated to pick up that tab. But if they will only get as much water as they’ve been getting in recent years, on average, will it be worth that investment?

For several months there have been signs that agricultural water districts may not want to pony up.

As Jason Peltier of the Westlands Water District told the Capitol Weekly in an Aug.7 story, “Frankly, if we come up on the low end of the range (for water yield) and that’s all the project can produce, I don’t see a sane farmer in the world saying I’m going to pay a whole lot of money for less water than I am getting today.”

To sweeten the deal, the Brown administration has been quietly floating the idea of an “enhanced environmental flow” program under which public money would be used to supplement flows in the Delta, for the purpose of helping species to recover. Documents from an Oct.18 meeting of the Kern County Water Agency suggest that officials are discussing a figure of $1billion to $1.5billion for the program.

Where would this water come from? What would be the source of money? State officials say the idea is just in the early stages and that those details haven’t been worked out.

All this looks suspiciously like the Environmental Water Account, a failed program from the Cal-Fed days that used public money to purchase water, ostensibly for environmental purposes. A major beneficiary of the EWA was the Kern County Water Agency, a state water contractor and one of the agencies balking at paying for BDCP.

Asked last week if the “enhanced environmental flow” program was a new version of the Environmental Water Account, a top state water official grimaced. “I would fight that characterization to the grave because of the negative connotation,” said Mark Cowin, who heads the California Department of Water Resources.

State and federal officials have made some progress on water planning in recent months. The state has drafted an action plan for water that seeks to elevate issues ignored by the tunnel project – such as water conservation, regional self-reliance groundwater protection and enhancement. BDCP officials have also headed off an attempt by water contractors to have veto authority over any “adaptive management” changes to the operation of the tunnels over time.

But no matter what is released next month, financing for the project is far from settled. How will the costs be divided among contractors? Will it be affordable to both urban and agricultural farm districts? Would a smaller tunnel project make more financial sense?

The other lingering issue is one of transparency. State officials are floating the idea of its “enhanced environmental flows,” with major public money going to water agencies, without involving the public.

Trust in BDCP foundered years ago because of a lack of transparency. Why does the Brown administration keep repeating this mistake?