[env-trinity] Brown administration working to scale down $17 billion Delta tunnels project
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Fri Jan 12 14:01:37 PST 2018
Brown administration working to scale down $17 billion Delta tunnels project
By PAUL ROGERS | progers at bayareanewsgroup.com | Bay Area News GroupPUBLISHED: January 12, 2018 at 12:15 pm | UPDATED: January 12, 2018 at 1:13 pmFaced with a shortage of money and political support after seven years of work, Gov. Jerry Brown’s administration is working on a plan to scale back one of his key legacy projects, a $17 billion proposal to build two massive tunnels under the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta to make it easier to move water from Northern California to the south.Instead of two tunnels, each 40 feet high and 35 miles long, Brown’s Department of Water Resources has been negotiating with major California water agencies in recent weeks on a revised plan to build just one tunnel at slightly more than half the cost of the original project.The new plan reflects the reality that Brown only has one year remaining in office and that the original project has failed to win enough financial backing from water agencies around California whom Brown was asking to pay for construction.The new approach — a huge shift in the often-intractable world of California’s water politics that has implications on everything from the environment to the water bills of millions of people — could be announced in the next month, said Jeff Kightlinger, CEO of the influential Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, which serves 20 million people in Los Angeles, San Diego and other areas.“I’m hopeful this will be seen as a kinder, gentler, more agreeable approach,” said Kightlinger.Rather than two tunnels with a capacity of 9,000 cubic feet per second, which is about 4 million gallons per minute, as the original project calls for, the one-tunnel proposal would carry between 3,000 and 6,000 cubic feet per second, Kightlinger said.The two-tunnel project could still be saved in its current form, Kightlinger said. But he conceded that it is increasingly unlikely, given the fact that major players such as Westlands Water District in Fresno and the Santa Clara Valley Water District in San Jose voted in recent months not to fund it. But in negotiations over two vs. one tunnel, there are nearly enough commitments from water agencies to get close to funding a smaller, one-tunnel project, he said.“Unless we can figure out the money in the next 30 days, which seems really difficult, my hunch is we’re heading toward the latter,” he said.“I think there’s a pretty decent chance it will happen,” he added. “You need about $10 billion to get to the single-barrel approach. I think we’re pretty close to having that.”Bay Area News GroupKightlinger said the project could be built in phases, with a second tunnel an option in the plan but with no timetable for construction. “Whether or not that ever happens, who knows,” he said.Environmental groups have fought the twin tunnels plan and vowed to tie them up in court over concerns that the project could allow large San Joaquin Valley farms and Southern California cities to potentially take more water in the future from Northern California, harming the Delta’s fragile ecosystem. But in 2013, several environmental groups, including the Natural Resources Defense Council, Planning and Conservation League, Defenders of Wildlife and the Bay Institute called for the state and federal government to study a smaller, one-tunnel project that would carry 3,000 cubic feet per second, as a way to potentially move water south during wet years, and reduce pumping during dry years when salmon, smelt and other fish species are most at risk.On Friday, they said they need to see more details.“We’ve always wanted to study a smaller facility,” said Doug Obegi, an attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council in San Francisco. “But the state and feds refused to study it. And it’s pretty ironic that they seem to be pivoting to a smaller project now.”Obegi said the primary goal of his organization is for the state to take less water from the Delta. Regional projects like water recycling, stormwater capture and the construction of new off-stream reservoirs should instead meet California’s future water needs, he said. Other environmentalists agreed, and said they want to see studies that would show how much water would be taken in a single tunnel, when and what the impacts on the environment would be.“After spending over a quarter of a billion dollars pushing for the big tunnels, the state and the Metropolitan Water District have finally recognized that it is dead,” said Jonas Minton, a senior water analyst with the Planning and Conservation League. “The problem with a somewhat smaller version is that it still lacks all the safeguards required to ensure that it will not destroy the environment and economy of the Bay Delta estuary.”The water agencies involved in the negotiations reportedly include Metropolitan, Santa Clara Valley Water District, Kern County Water Agency and other contractors of the State Water Project.“Let’s try it in a smaller size, and if it works, the people will have confidence in it. I think that is a fair compromise,” said Dick Santos, chairman of the Santa Clara Valley Water District board.A report released in October by State Auditor Elaine Howle found that the state originally said the tunnels project would cost $140 million to study and permit, but that so far, local water agencies have spent $280 million. The state “has not completed either an economic or financial analysis to demonstrate the financial viability” of the project, which the Brown administration calls the California WaterFix, Howle added.John Laird, secretary of California’s Natural Resources Agency, said he could not discuss details of the current negotiations between the state Department of Water Resources and other large water agencies. But he did not dispute Kightlinger’s characterization of the talks.“We are in negotiations,” Laird said. “We hope they are concluded in the next few weeks. Everything is on the table and we hope to get a project that can be built.”The Delta, a vast slough of wetlands and channels where the state’s two largest rivers — the Sacramento and the San Joaquin — meet before flowing into San Francisco Bay, is one of California’s most important water sources. It provides water to 23 million people from Silicon Valley to San Diego and irrigates millions of acres of Central Valley farmland.The Delta tunnels plan was begun under former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. The idea is that the tunnels would take water from the Sacramento River, south of Sacramento near the town of Courtland, and move it to the huge pumps near Tracy that are part of the State Water Project and Central Valley Project. That, supporters say, would reduce reliance on the pumps and make water deliveries more reliable by protecting endangered salmon, smelt and other fish, which can be killed by the pumps. Protecting the fish leads to reduced pumping.But critics call the tunnels a huge boondoggle that will eventually 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, regardless of what promises are made now.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.Meanwhile, political intrigue is swirling. Earlier this week, Grant Davis, who was named executive director of the state Department of Water Resources in July, resigned abruptly to take back his former job as general manager of the Sonoma County Water Agency. Davis, a former environmental activist with the Bay Institute, was replaced by Karla Nemeth, who has worked in the Schwarzenegger and Brown administrations since 2009, largely on Delta tunnels projects. Nemeth is married to Tom Philp, a chief strategist at the Metropolitan Water District.
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