Big setback for Gov. Brown’s twin-tunnels project in the delta
By Kurtis Alexander Updated 5:48 pm, Tuesday, September 19, 2017
California’s biggest agricultural water supplier said Tuesday that it’s not ready to spend money on Gov. Jerry Brown’s proposed delta tunnels plan, a decision that could threaten the future of the $17 billion project.
The Westlands Water District, the powerful San Joaquin Valley supplier that irrigates some of the state’s biggest farms, was widely expected to pay as much as a fifth of the bill for two 35-mile-long tunnels that would help move water from Northern California to fields and cities to the south, including in the Bay Area.
But Westlands board members said at their Fresno meeting that the district is being counted on to carry too much of the load. The state is expecting the dozens of water agencies that benefit from the State Water Project to help finance the tunnels, but several of them had already begun to rethink their support even before Westlands’ vote.
Without Westlands’ contribution, the remaining agencies, which include the Santa Clara Valley Water District, Alameda County Water District and the Tri-Valley area’s Zone 7 Water Agency, each would have to pay more.
Paying for the project is certain to force the agencies to raise rates for customers. The state has threatened to withhold benefits from the tunnels project — chiefly, increased water deliveries — from agencies that don’t contribute to its cost.
Westlands’ refusal to pay, however, raises the specter of a bolt for the exits by local water agencies that would make it impossible for the state to move forward with construction.
Westlands “stated from the beginning that the district would not obligate its farmers to billions of dollars of new debt without a reasonable assurance that the project would result in a reliable, adequate and affordable supply of water,” said district General Manager Tom Birmingham. “The uncertainty of the project as currently envisioned was reflected in the vote of today’s decision not to participate.”
The twin tunnels beneath the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta are designed to bypass an aging system of canals that have made it difficult for the state to increase water deliveries from Northern California to the Bay Area, Central Valley and Southern California. Proponents say the new infrastructure will make water deliveries more plentiful and reliable and will maintain supplies for dwindling fish populations.
The decade-old plan, known as California WaterFix, was given the go-ahead from environmental regulators this summer, and state water officials had hoped to begin construction as soon as next year. But the financing snag is likely to affect that timeline.
State officials have said if they don’t have enough funding to cover the project, they’ll have to downsize it. That would prompt another long and arduous approval process.
“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, which has opposed the project because of fears it could harm fish runs. “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.”
State Natural Resources Secretary John Laird said in a statement, “There is one thing on which everyone agrees: Our aging water infrastructure needs to be modernized. Failing to act puts future water supply reliability at risk. This vote, while disappointing, in no way signals the end of WaterFix.”
Officials with the Santa Clara Valley Water District, which serves 1.9 million South Bay residents, and the Alameda County Water District, which serves about 350,000 in the East Bay, said they had not made up their minds on whether to make a financial commitment.
Officials at the Zone 7 Water Agency, which serves Pleasanton, Livermore, Dublin and San Ramon, said they have no choice but to sign on. The agency gets 80 percent of its water from state deliveries through the delta, and the cost of developing new sources would be far greater.
“It’s expensive and it will probably have an impact on our water rates, but it will be spread out,” said Jill Duerig, the agency’s general manager.
Duerig said she hopes that all the agencies getting delta water work among themselves to figure out a financing plan and not leave each other guessing about who’s going to pay.
“This project is the result of a dozen years of trying to come up with something that’s going to minimize impacts,” she said. “This is the best we’re going to get.”