EDITORIAL: Who will pay for water plan?

FresnoNovember 16, 2013 

Next month, water contractors and the Brown administration are expected to release a draft environmental impact report for the Bay Delta Conservation Plan.

RANDALL BENTON — RBenton@sacbee.com

Sometime next month, water contractors and the Brown administration are expected to release a draft environmental impact report for the Bay Delta Conservation Plan. This hefty tome likely will be heralded as an important milestone in pushing forward BDCP's plans to restore Delta habitat and build tunnels to ship Sacramento River water to the south. But what is missing from the plan will be as important as what it contains.

When it comes to water policy, Gov. Jerry Brown's motto seems to be "tunnels or bust." Increasingly, as costs and questions pile up, "bust" looks like a possible outcome.

To address concerns raised by state and federal fisheries agencies, BDCP officials have agreed reduce the tunnel project's expected initial yield — the amount of water that can be exported yearly to Southern California, the San Joaquin Valley and other water contractors south of the Delta. Previously, the project was expected to generate 5.3 million acre-feet of water in an average year — more than contractors have been receiving recently under biological opinions.

But because such exports would reduce outflow in the Delta, further harming threatened fisheries and raising the ire of environmental regulators, that number has been scaled back to 4.8 million acre-feet.

This is still a huge volume of water — enough to supply nearly 10 million homes or irrigate 4.8 million acres of farmland with a foot of water for a year. But it also is roughly what contractors have been receiving in recent years.

So that raises a question. The tunnel project will cost roughly $15 billion to build, and likely much more, with the inevitable cost overruns. Water contractors are slated to pick up that tab. But if they will only get as much water as they've been getting in recent years, on average, will it be worth that investment?

For several months there have been signs that agricultural water districts may not want to pony up. To sweeten the deal, the Brown administration has been quietly floating the idea of an "enhanced environmental flow" program, in which public money would be used to supplement flows in the Delta, for the purpose of helping species to recover. Documents from an Oct. 18 meeting of the Kern County Water Agency suggest that officials are discussing a figure of $1 billion to $1.5 billion for the program.

Where would this water come from, and what would be the source of money? State officials say the idea is just in the early stages and that those details haven't been worked out.

But no matter what is released next month, financing the project is far from settled. The other lingering issue is transparency. State officials are floating the idea of its "enhanced environmental flows," with major amounts of public money going to water agencies, without involving the public. Trust in BDCP foundered years ago because of a lack of transparency. Why does Brown keep repeating this mistake?


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