Opinion Columns & Blogs

Editorials: Two-tunnel study leaves big questions unanswered

Despite the state’s 34,000-page draft environmental impact study, fundamental questions remain unanswered about the proposal to build two huge tunnels to divert water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta to points south.

The basic financial framework, for example, remains unresolved. Yet to be determined is how the multibillion-dollar cost would be split among water agencies who would benefit, and the state and federal governments. What would be the role be of the Delta counties? The report also fails to define what future water flows would be through the Delta.

The first critical indication whether the twin tunnels idea has legs will be hard commitments from the water agencies for ponying up the $1.2 billion to complete the pre-construction planning – from big agricultural water contractors, such as Westlands Water District and Kern County Water Agency, and the big urban water contractors, including the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California and Santa Clara Valley Water District. Without such commitments by January, no later than March, all parties should rethink the project.

According to the Bay Delta Conservation Plan, the twin tunnels would not divert more water from the Delta than currently permitted. The BDCP anticipates that “annual water diversions from the Delta would be within 10 percent of the historic, 20-year average.”

This conversation takes place when the first 10 months of the year were the driest since 1895, according to the National Climatic Data Center. Currently, 83 percent of the state is in severe drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.

And we face longer-term climate issues. Scott Stine of California State University, East Bay, has found that the last century and a half was abnormally wet for the last 4,000 years, and that “drier times undoubtedly lie ahead.”

Water contractors’ hopes of exporting 4.8 million to 5.8 million acre-feet of water south, as in the last 20 years, may be unrealistic.

Are state officials and water contractors open to looking at a smaller project – plus reducing water demand and increasing storage south of the Delta? One option is a single 3,000 cubic-feet-per-second tunnel, with exports of 4million acre-feet in an average year.

A perceived water grab, when experts agree that water will be more scarce in the future, will not happen without a protracted fight. It is time to consider alternatives seriously, something the 34,000-page draft study just doesn’t do.