Money, politics and the twin tunnels

Aerial view of the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta. (Photo: Department of Water Resources)

In the wake of the Oroville dam near-disaster, a question floating around Capitol corridors now is:  Given the amount of money needed for what everyone agrees must be an expensive revamping of the state’s water infrastructure, is there room now for Gov. Jerry Brown’s heart’s desire — the $15.5 billion twin tunnels project?

“This project has been subjected to 10 years of detailed analysis and more environmental review than any other project in the history of the world. It is absolutely essential if California is to maintain a reliable water supply,” Brown declared in a formal statement issued on Dec. 22, 2016.

The idea is to build two enormous tunnels, each four stories high and 40 feet in diameter, for 35 miles under the delta, through which about half of California’s drinking water flows.

Brown’s legacy proposal is the most ambitious water project California has seen in more than 50 years.

It’s also not the first time he’s sought a major plumbing change in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta: His plan during his earlier years as governor to build a 42-mile-long canal around the periphery of the delta was approved by the Legislature but rejected by voters in a bitter 1982 referendum.

No one believes California can manage water infrastructure improvement and repair without federal help.

But state political leaders have not been shy in their contempt for all things Trump.

How the president will view the state’s need for  bountiful federal dollars as part of any water infrastructure improvement program is an open question. Trump did, however, quickly approve a request from Brown to make federal disaster assistance available to California in the wake of the Oroville dam near-disaster.

Brown’s latest idea is to build two enormous tunnels, each four stories high and 40 feet in diameter, for 35 miles under the delta, through which about half of California’s drinking water flows.  The watery superhighway would send fresh water from the Sacramento River to cities and farms to the south.

It would not be a statewide obligation.  The agencies that reap benefits from the project would pay for it with revenue bonds, with the money coming from the farmers and urban water users in  their agencies’ jurisdictions. Financing would not require a statewide vote on a bond issue, although twin tunnels water recipients would presumably be in line to bear some of the cost of statewide water infrastructure improvements in addition to their Twin Tunnels cost.

In 2014, voters approved a $7.5 billion water bond, including $2.7 billion for storage projects,

The plan is opposed by the fishing industry in the north and by some environmental groups who fear that too much water would be sent south, thereby removing a fresh water buffer and allowing more salt water intrusion from San Francisco Bay.

The opponents also talk of the idyllic Delta landscape and the rich farmland, which, they argue, would be endangered by the project.  In their view, Southern Californians are in effect saying,  “idyllic schmydillic — send the water.  Lots of it.  Right now.”

California’s water infrastructure of dams, aqueducts, levees and more is big.  The California Aqueduct alone is more than 400 miles long, pushing Northern California water south; California has 1,400 dams, some 6,000 miles of levees in the Central Valley — and nearly 39 million people.

Californians have not entirely neglected their water situation.  In 2014, voters approved a $7.5 billion water bond, including $2.7 billion for storage projects, to provide funding to water projects and programs.

But the American Society of Civil Engineers says it will cost $65 billion a year over the next 10 years to fix California’s overall infrastructure — roads, bridges, dams, etc. And that’s from a report that is now more than four years old.  (The engineers will issue a new report on March 9.)

The Sierra snowpack is at 185 percent of normal — a warm spring could trigger a quick melting, and more flooding.

The engineers said this in their 2012 “Report Card” on California’s overall infrastructure needs:

“In 2012, the 10-year total unfunded infrastructure investment required has increased to $650 billion In 2006, California voters passed almost $42 billion worth of infrastructure measures on the ballots, and although that was a good start and it has certainly helped at least maintain or in some cases improve the grades, the 2006 ballot measures represent only a drop in the bucket compared to the $650 billion needed to move California in the right direction.”

Even accounting for engineers’ characteristic desire to make everything as well done and complete as possible, it is clear that big sums are going to be required.

How the enormous amount of money needed to upgrade the state’s ability to manage water resources will be raised and allotted will probably trigger a more intense continuation of California’s 150-year-old water wars.  The situation is further complicated by the fact that the Sierra snowpack is at 185 percent of normal — a warm spring could trigger a quick melting, and more flooding.

“New conveyance also could make it easier for water users to benefit from water trading and new storage in the Sacramento Valley.” — PPIC

In an effort to at least start the ball rolling, state Senate Leader Kevin de León introduced SB 5 last December, which would provide $3 billion in bond money to fund water management infrastructure, along with state and local parks.

Perhaps out of fear of offending the governor, few California policymakers seem eager to comment on the fact that, even with its relatively specialized funding, the twin tunnels may be in trouble because of the pressure of statewide needs.

Calls and emails to Sen. Bob Hertzberg, chair of the Natural Resources and Water Committee, and Assemblyman Eduardo Garcia, chairman of the Assembly Committee on Water, Parks, and Wildlife, were not returned.  De Leon’s office referred a caller to a prepared statement on his introduction of the $3 billion bond proposal.

In a brand-new analysis of the Central Valley’s water situation, the Public Policy Institute of California was cautiously optimistic about the Twin Tunnels idea:

“The proposal to improve Delta conveyance by building tunnels underneath the Delta to move water from the Sacramento River to the pumps in the southern Delta— known as California WaterFix — is not currently projected to greatly increase imports beyond current levels, but it would improve their reliability. And by increasing the flexibility of water operations in the Delta, new conveyance also could make it easier for water users to benefit from water trading and new storage in the Sacramento Valley.”

No one believes the state can manage water infrastructure improvement and repair without federal help

In a prescient 2011 look at California’s water situation, the PPIC declared:

“Crises are brewing, waiting for the next drought, flood, or lawsuit to bring widespread or local catastrophe. In some ways, California is already in a crisis, but the crisis is moving so slowly that the state’s leaders and residents often fail to recognize it. Given anticipated changes in demographic, economic, climatic, and ecosystem conditions, today’s conflicts are likely to worsen unless California can quickly develop significant, forward-looking changes in water policy.”

Californians were reminded of the fact that infrastructure failure can be disastrous by the Oroville dam situation.  Except for historians, it’s now pretty much forgotten, but in 1928, the St. Francis dam 40 miles northeast of downtown Los Angeles failed with the loss of 600 lives.  A commission looked at the causes.  At the end of the examining commission’s report Governor C. C. Young declared:

“While fully cognizant of the appalling loss of life and great destruction of property caused by this frightful disaster, it is at the same time self-evident that the full development of this great commonwealth requires that her water resources be fully conserved. This can be done only by containing the constructions of great dams, such as those which are now doing their work without signs of weakness.”

One thing is for sure:  With or without Jerry Brown’s tunnels, drought-and-flood-prone California is going to be spending some money on water projects in the years to come.

  • Jim Brobeck

    This article repeats the most common water industry tome: “In their view, Southern Californians are in effect saying, “idyllic schmydillic — send the water. Lots of it. Right now.” This effort to perpetuate the myth that California’s water deficit results from population growth in Southern California. Senior water users in the Delta and citizens in the Sacramento Valley know that 80% of the demand comes from a few hundred massive San Joaquin Valley irrigators.
    The way municipalities use
    water can be sustainable, even as their population grows, as long as
    they embrace conservation, water recycling and reuse, and a diverse
    portfolio of management options. However, agricultural water use at
    today’s scale in California is not sustainable. Agriculture is literally
    sucking the state dry.

    Food production requires nearly
    unfathomable volumes of water, and has resulted in the long-term decline
    of the total available fresh water in California. The great thirst of
    our highly productive agricultural sector has never been and will never
    be satisfied by the annual winter storms that feed the state’s rivers
    and reservoirs. The shortfall is met by pumping groundwater at rates
    that greatly exceed those of replenishment. As a result, groundwater
    levels in much of the state, including the once-vast reserves beneath
    the Central Valley, have been declining for nearly a century.

    It is essential to understand that
    wet winters like the current one will not reverse this long-term
    decline. Historically, even the wettest multiyear periods result in only
    a modest uptick in the otherwise steady loss of Central Valley
    groundwater. The landmark Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, passed
    in 2014 in Sacramento, acknowledges and confronts the declining
    availability of fresh water in California. Its requirements, however,
    will never result in the recovery of statewide groundwater levels, even
    if important efforts to enhance groundwater recharge and construct
    additional storage are pursued.

    • Chancy Jones Wooldridge

      Thank you. I moved to Elk Grove three years ago from Orange County. The hostility toward water users in the the South is unbelievable. I am a 7th generation Californian whose great-grandfather worked on the Los Angeles Aqueduct 100 years ago, so I know we have to attempt to understand that it doesn’t belong to anyone. It falls from the sky and we have to wrangle it.

  • D_Mitchell
  • Tellurian

    I’ve lived in California all my life. I grew up in what used to be called The Great Central Valley and have lived in northern California since graduating from UC Davis in 1974. I love the entire state, including that exploding star called Los Angeles, one of only two true world cities in North America. I am the only person I know who has visited every county in California and can name them all from memory. But I cannot support any more massive schemes to impound or deliver water to the South (or anywhere in the state) as long as we continue to regard water as a cheap commodity. Price reasonable water usage low for conscientious (limited) home use. But excessive use should be very expensive, including for private pools, private lawns and landscaping, golf courses, long showers, and industry and agriculture that fail to employ the most advanced conservation methods. I mention long showers because even at the height of the drought, I noticed at my gym that most people appear to have zero consciousness about water. Many not only take long showers, they don’t even bother to turn off the water completely when finished. If we altered our view of water and the way we use it – not just in southern California, but all over the state – we would not need to destroy more canyons and valleys for reservoirs or spend huge amounts of public money on massive projects like the Delta tunnels. I will speak out and work against new water projects until my fellow Californians agree that the first response and requirement is vigilant conservation forever.

  • Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla

    The Delta Tunnels, misnamed CA WaterFix, is a $60 billion boondoggle. That is what the project will actually cost with interest, operations, habitat, and administration fees — but before cost overruns. The project will not make additional water, and does not save fisheries. Delta smelt and iconic Sacramento River Salmon will do worse with the project, and water quality will be degraded for the hundreds of thousands of Delta residents who rely on Delta water supplies. It makes much more sense to upgrade Delta levees to protect Delta communities and the State’s water supply, screen the existing pumps to protect fisheries, and to follow the 2009 Delta Reform Act, which mandates reduced reliance on the Delta. Many good paying jobs can be made by fixing our existing infrastructure and creating local water projects that create regional self sufficiency. Sustainable water projects for the environment, for water supply, and for our pocketbooks makes a lot more sense.

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