$17 billion Delta tunnels plan in trouble after key water agency backs out
By PAUL ROGERS | firstname.lastname@example.org | Bay Area News Group
PUBLISHED: September 19, 2017 at 6:12 pm | UPDATED: September 20, 2017 at 5:12 am
In a major and potentially fatal setback to Gov. Jerry Brown’s $17 billion plan to build two huge tunnels under the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, America’s largest irrigation district voted Tuesday to pull out of the project.
The board of Westlands Water District, based in Fresno, voted 7-1 following an hour of debate and discussion over the costs of the project, which is intended to make it easier to move water from north to south.
Westlands was going to pay roughly $3 billion of the total bill. Now, those costs will have to be shouldered by other water agencies that decide to participate, which means higher-than-expected water bills in those areas.
Among the large water agencies considering participating in the project is the Santa Clara Valley Water District, based in San Jose. The district, which provides drinking water and flood protection to 2 million people from Palo Alto to Gilroy, is scheduled to vote Oct. 17.
Its costs were expected to be about $1 billion for 5 percent of the project’s water. Now that a key partner has pulled out, the likelihood of the district endorsing and funding the project has decreased, said John Varela, chairman of the Santa Clara Valley Water District, late Tuesday.
“My magic eight-ball is just not coming up with an answer that is positive now that Westlands is pulling out,” said Varela. “I can’t imagine how we can go forward when one of the most significant water users in the state is sending a message that this project doesn’t pencil out for them. If it doesn’t pencil out for them, how does it pencil out for us?”
Several large Bay Area water agencies, including the Contra Costa Water District, East Bay Municipal Utility District and San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, are not participating in the project. The Alameda County Water District, which serves 350,000 people in Fremont, Newark and Union City, has not yet decided whether to join.
Under a loophole in Proposition 13, water agencies like Santa Clara Valley Water District have said they could raise taxes of people in their areas without a public vote to pay for the project, and any potential cost overruns. That’s because the tunnels would be considered an upgrade to the State Water Project, started by former Gov. Pat Brown in 1960, before voters passed Proposition 13 in 1978.
The tunnels project, which Brown’s administration has called WaterFix, would build two tunnels, each 35 miles long and 40 feet high. The idea is that they would take water from the Sacramento River, north of Sacramento near the town of Courtland, and move it to the huge pumps at Tracy that are part of the State Water Project, reducing reliance on those pumps.
During some times of year, when salmon, Delta smelt and other endangered fish swim near the pumps, court rulings have required that the pumps be turned down, or off temporarily, so they don’t kill the fish.
But critics say that the tunnels are a huge boondoggle that would allow large agribusiness interests in the San Joaquin Valley, as well as urban users in Los Angeles, to take more water out of the Delta, a fragile system of islands and sloughs that flows into San Francisco Bay.
Complicating Brown’s plans, his administration has not been able to guarantee that the tunnels will allow any more water to be pumped out of the Delta than is being pumped out now — roughly 50 percent of all its fresh water in most years.
Farm districts and city water agencies have looked at the costs, calculated how much debt they would incur, and wondered if they can spend the money more efficiently. For Westlands, district officials told farmers the tunnels would increase water reliability, but could increase their costs from $160 an acre foot to $600 an acre foot.
Westlands general manager Thomas Birmingham said after Tuesday’s dramatic vote, which sent shock waves across California’s close-knit water community, that he believes it could kill the tunnels project.
“This thing dies, the project will be over,” he said.
Brown administration officials scrambled to put the best face on the rapidly deteriorating situation.
“There is one thing on which everyone agrees: Our aging water infrastructure needs to be modernized,” said John Laird, California’s Secretary for Natural Resources. “Failing to act puts future water supply reliability at risk. This vote, while disappointing, in no way signals the end of WaterFix.”
“The takeaway from today’s vote is that the current twin tunnels plan is dying from its own weight,” said John McManus, executive director of the Golden Gate Salmon Association, a fishing group.
“It’s way too big and expensive, even for the growers in the desert-dry western San Joaquin Valley who need the water the most,” he added. “Maybe this will open the way for a more rational discussion on a new way forward.”
Westlands is the first water district to vote on the project. Officials in other districts were watching the vote as they prepare to make their decisions on the project that has been on the drawing board for more than a decade.
Thus far, the biggest water project proposed for California in more than a half-century has no firm financial commitments from local water districts.
Jeff Kightlinger, general manager of the massive Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, which provides drinking water to 19 million people, told the Sacramento Bee after the vote that it is a game-changer.
“Absent Westlands, you don’t have a (tunnels) project,” said Kightlinger, who has been one of the project’s biggest supporters.
“This was designed to be a comprehensive solution for California — both ag and urban, and really cover all the major parties,” he said. “We would have designed a different project if it was just for the urban sector or something like that. But we didn’t. My board has been pretty clear … they’re not in the business of subsidizing agriculture.”
Westlands, whose former lobbyist, David Bernhart, was just named deputy Interior Secretary in the Trump administration overseeing Western water policy, provides irrigation water to 1,000 square miles in the San Joaquin Valley, some of the nation’s richest farmland.
Brown is pressing to secure the project before he leaves office next year. Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, the front-runner in polls to succeed him, has not taken a strong position either way on the project.
“The governor is a good man. I’m a fan,” said Dick Santos, a board member of the Santa Clara Valley Water District. “He tried to attack the Delta problem. He stood up and tried to get something done. But this is too expensive. It’s not ready. Maybe this will force us to come up with a better plan.”