Political Notebook

Dan Walters: Brown’s projects face tests

The two immense public works projects that would be Jerry Brown legacies will soon face pivotal moments.

The years-long debates over a north-south bullet train and twin water tunnels beneath the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta have focused on whether they are needed, as Brown contends, to enhance the state’s future.

Ultimately, however, whether they fly or die depends on securing tens of billions of dollars in financing.

The bullet train’s projected cost has varied widely since voters passed a $9.95 billion bond in 2008 and is currently pegged at $68 billion. Polls also indicate that support for the project has declined sharply since then, and the bonds are tied up in lawsuits.

Nevertheless, the California High-Speed Rail Authority will soon release a revised business plan, promising it will lay out a complete financing and construction scheme.

There have been hints that the new plan will shift from building the southern section of the system – from the San Joaquin Valley to Burbank – first to concentrating on the less expensive northern section that begins in the Bay Area.

Regardless, the project is tens of billions of dollars short of having the financing it needs.

There’s little likelihood of the massive federal aid previously assumed, but the project gets a big chunk of “cap-and-trade” fees on carbon emissions, and officials have talked about leveraging it for loans, perhaps from the federal government, to keep the project alive.

Meanwhile, the tunnel project’s tests begin with seeking permission from the State Water Resources Control Board to divert water from the Sacramento River south of Sacramento, even though environmental studies are unfinished.

By carrying water beneath the Delta to the head of the California Aqueduct near Tracy, the project – officially renamed California Water Fix – would reduce the need to draw water out of the Delta.

Brown calls it “essential to completing the California Water Project and protecting fish and water quality,” adding that without it, “San Joaquin farms, Silicon Valley and other vital centers of the California economy will suffer devastating losses in their water supply.”

However, most environmental groups oppose it, along with Delta farmers, saying it will rob the Delta of water and damage its environment.

While contentious water board hearings loom, the project also faces a November election ballot measure, sponsored by wealthy Delta farmer Dean Cortopassi, that would subject any project costing $2 billion or more and financed by revenue bonds to a public vote.

As planned, the tunnels would require such bonds, to be repaid by fees on water users south of the Delta, primarily the Westlands Water District and the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California.

There’s already some evidence of declining enthusiasm within those two entities as they weigh spending at least $15 billion for receiving little, if any, additional water.

The tunnels would, backers say, allow more water to be stored south of the Delta, thereby improving reliability.

However, Southern California has become less dependent on Northern California water due to drought-induced conservation, additional reservoir capacity, the recapture and treatment of wastewater and, most recently, large-scale desalination projects, thereby weakening the reliability argument.

All in all, the chances that both projects will come to pass may be less than 50-50.

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