By Vicky Boyd
The California Department of Water Resources continues to fast-track plans to build a single tunnel to move water from north to south under the Delta and recently started efforts to validate potential financing bonds.
San Joaquin Farm Bureau President David Strecker said he remains concerned about the state’s efforts to push through the tunnel project without adequate public input.
“The state has tunnel vision about how they’re looking at this project and how they’re trying to block any avenue for people to discuss it,” said Strecker, who farms row crops in the Delta. “They’re not listening to anybody, and it’s going to be an uphill battle for us.”
San Joaquin County Supervisor Chuck Winn agreed, saying his larger concern is the state is not listening to how the proposed project may affect Delta water quality and quantity as well as its economic impacts on the Delta itself.
Winn, who chairs a number of county and regional planning and water committees, pointed to a recent letter from Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti to Metropolitan Water District Chair Gloria Gray.
In it, Garcetti highlighted the need for MWD, of which Los Angeles is its largest customer, to focus more on local and regional water supply projects that protect local ratepayers. DWR is banking on MWD to be the tunnel’s largest water customer.
Local and regional water projects are nothing new to San Joaquin County as representatives from the five Delta counties have advocated for them for some time, said Winn, District 4 supervisor.
“Our argument is very simply that local projects, which provide for local jobs, also provide for local benefits and provide local control,” he said.
A good example, Winn said, is the North San Joaquin Water Conservation Districts partnership with the East Bay Municipal Utilities District to develop a pilot groundwater banking project.
Local efforts also tend to be smaller, can be completed in a relatively short time period and carry a much smaller price tag, he said.
The tunnel’s high cost
Strecker said he also remains worried about the tunnel’s statewide impact as well as its $15.9 billion estimated construction costs. According to previous DWR presentations, fees from water districts that purchase water from the tunnel project will pay for it. So far, State Water Project contractors – particularly those from Southern California – have been the tunnel’s strongest cheerleaders although that support is apparently waning with newer cost-benefit numbers.
An August cost-benefit analysis conducted by Jeff Michael, executive director of the University of the Pacific’s Center for Business and Policy Research, found the Delta Conveyance would cost more than it would yield. He compared the current project to a single-tunnel alternative in the 2017 WaterFix estimated to cost $11.1 billion.
The earlier project had a cost-benefit of 1.17 for ag water, meaning every dollar spent would return $1.17. The Delta Conveyance, on the other hand, has a cost-benefit of 0.87 for ag water. So for every $1 spent, it would yield only 87 cents.
“This is going to affect every single person living in the state one way or another, and they’re putting blinders on,” Strecker said. “The state of California is literally robbing them.”
He cited the new eastern span of the Bay Bridge as an example of how state projects are besieged with cost overruns. Originally budgeted at about $250 million, the new span came in at more than $6 billion when completed.
Winn, who chairs the eight-county San Joaquin Council of Governments, has seen construction costs for the high-speed rail continue to soar with no end in sight. And he said he fears the same would happen with the Delta Conveyance.
Plans to issue financing bonds
Using an in-your-face newspaper legal notice, DWR filed a court case seeking public objections to bonds it may issue to finance planning and/or construction of the Delta Conveyance project.
“Notice! You have been sued. Plaintiff has filed a civil complaint against you,” reads the beginning of the newspaper legal notice surrounding the bond validation action.
The lawsuit, part of a validation or in rem action the department filed Aug. 6 with the Sacramento County Superior Court, deals with DWR’s authority to issue revenue bonds to finance the Delta Conveyance Project. Those who objected had until Oct. 30 to respond and challenge it.
The department’s action is not that unusual and does not make each of the state’s residents responsible for repaying the validated bonds, said Laurence Campling, information officer for the Delta Conveyance Office.
DWR has legal authority to finance and construct the project under the Central Valley Project Act. But a validation action confirms the department has the legal authority to do so, he said. It also is designed to ensure that any bonds the department issues won’t be challenged in a court, a contest that could take years to resolve.
“The proactive nature of this action means that there is no identified party for the state to sue to resolve this question and, therefore, requires that the state give notice to anyone who might be interested in responding, which is why the notice is written in such a direct way,” Campling wrote in an email.
Strecker and Winn have good cause to be concerned about writing the state a blank check. Gov. Gavin Newsom’s administration estimates the project will cost $15.9 billion, but court documents contain no specific amount surrounding possible bonds. Instead, it just refers to funds needed to develop and build the project.
“The aggregate principal amount of bonds which may be executed, authenticated and delivered under this resolution is not limited except as may hereafter be provided by amendment to this resolution pursuant to Section 1101(C)(1) or as may be limited by law,” according to the documents.
How we got here
The Delta Conveyance Project, a pared-down version of the Twin Tunnels Project, involves a single 36-foot-diameter tunnel buried about 150 feet below the Delta and running for about 35 miles. The proposed tunnel capacity ranges from 3,000 to 7,500 cubic feet per second, depending on the alternative design chosen.
The project as proposed also involves two 3,000 cfs intakes along the Sacramento River between South Sacramento and Walnut Grove. Water would flow in the single tunnel under the Delta, to a proposed southern forebay and eventually into the existing Clifton Court Forebay. From there, it would be pumped into the California Aqueduct for distribution to the South.
The predecessor to the Delta Conveyance, the Twin Tunnels project, involved two cross-Delta tunnels. It also included three intakes on the Sacramento River near Sacramento with a total capacity of 9,000 cfs. The Twin Tunnels carried a price tag of about $17 billion.
DWR held scoping sessions throughout the state in February and March to gauge public opinion of different alternatives, including a no project option. The department is currently drafting an environmental impact review and environmental impact statement. They are scheduled to be completed by early 2022 and available for public review in mid-2022, according to department calendars.
The latest build-out schedule for the single tunnel project is 20 years compared to 13 years for the previous project.
“And you add on to that litigation, which our county is involved in,” Winn said. “If they say 20 years, maybe it’s 30 years. It may be 25-30 years before even one drop of water will come through that tunnel.”