Opinion Columns & Blogs

Jeffrey Michael, Kathy Miller and Karen Mitchoff: Dump low-yield, high-risk Delta tunnels plan

Opponents of Gov. Jerry Brown’s plan to move water under the Delta through tunnels say the project wastes money and won’t add a single drop of water to the state’s supply.
Opponents of Gov. Jerry Brown’s plan to move water under the Delta through tunnels say the project wastes money and won’t add a single drop of water to the state’s supply. RBenton@sacbee.com

In “California Water Fix is vital to the Valley” published Aug. 23 by The Bee, the authors were correct to state that “the drought has hit every part of California hard” and the state “simply cannot afford to wait any longer to create a reliable water supply for the Central Valley.”

However, they are wrong to suggest that the California Water Fix will address the long-term security of local water supplies in the Central Valley. The multibillion-dollar, twin tunnels plan hinders real statewide water solutions for California.

This insistence to build tunnels forces everyone to wait longer for a reliable water supply. Rather than preparing for long-term drought, state officials continue to perpetuate a 30-year-old idea, urging people to “rally together” for a project that will be a financial loser for the Central Valley and California. Had they pursued more realistic, more sustainable alternatives to the tunnels several years ago, perhaps a more reliable water supply would now be available.

The Water Fix is terrible for agriculture and water users statewide. If constructed, it won’t add a single drop of new water to California’s water supply. The plan doesn’t pencil out from an economic standpoint and falls short of producing “real” scientific and environmental benefits. The tunnels would take thousands of acres of prime farmland out of production in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, deplete groundwater supplies in the path of construction, and degrade water quality to the detriment of farmers, cities and wildlife. The Water Fix has been negotiated without critical stakeholder input, it violates state and federal environmental law, and it will cause irreparable harm to Delta communities.

Farmers who rely on exports will see their average water costs at least double under the Water Fix with little or no additional water in return. Irrigation districts will be required to pay over a billion dollars per year on the construction debt, even during droughts when they receive no water from the tunnels and can least afford it. Farm water supplies that depend on San Joaquin River tributaries (Merced, Stanislaus and Tuolumne) will be at greater risk, requiring replacement of water flows that the tunnels will remove from the Delta.

The Water Fix’s environmental documents show that building the tunnels will yield less than 200,000 acre-feet of water for San Joaquin Valley farmers, enough to irrigate 60,000 acres. These farmers will be responsible for over $10 billion of the tunnels’ price tag, or over $150,000 per acre. Independent economists estimate the tunnels’ water yield will cost $3,000 per acre-foot, even without expected cost overruns.

The state has yet to provide a viable finance plan for the tunnels that protects taxpayers from the projects’ escalating costs. Because of the tunnels’ unprecedented debt for farmers, lenders could require greater flexibility for farmers to sell their irrigation water to cities and developers. If financing the tunnels results in irrigation water being sold to cities, the Valley could be left even drier than before.

The governor has advocated other alternatives in his California Water Action Plan, including storage, conservation, recycling, increased efficiency and regional independence. It’s easy to voice support for this approach, but in reality, there are limits to what farmers, taxpayers and ratepayers can afford. As part of the tunnel package, the governor has floated these and other ideas he says are part of a broader plan.

But the quest for the tunnels practically guarantees there will be no money for anything else, including more cost-effective and less risky ideas like storage, recycling and conservation, which we strongly support. The state would make faster progress if it pursued real solutions that benefit everyone and avoided wasting tens of billions of dollars on a divisive, low-yield, high-risk plan for tunnels under the Delta.

It’s time for the state to drop the deeply flawed twin tunnels plan and adopt real policy solutions that ensure sustainable water supplies, fiscal stability, an improved natural environment, and the viability of California’s agriculture and its farmers.

Jeffrey Michael is director of the Center for Business and Policy Research at University of the Pacific. Kathy Miller is a member of the Delta Counties Coalition and member of the San Joaquin County Board of Supervisors. Karen Mitchoff is a member of the Delta Counties Coalition and member of the Contra Costa County Board of Supervisors.

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