Ag Today September 21, 2017

What’s next for Brown’s Delta tunnels now that a big chunk of funding has disappeared?

By Dale Kasler and Ryan Sabalow, Sacramento Bee

Shellshocked by an influential farm irrigation district’s refusal to help pay for the Delta tunnels, advocates of the $17.1 billion project were scrambling Wednesday to salvage it or conjure up a Plan B. Three possible options were floated by California water policymakers for reviving the proposal. All of them face substantial hurdles of their own.

Can the tunnels go forward? Here’s a look at the current state – and the immediate future – of the project dubbed California WaterFix by Gov. Jerry Brown’s administration.

What’s the reason for the tunnels?

Everyone acknowledges that the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, the hub of California’s water delivery network, is increasingly fragile. Fish populations have plummeted, and most experts say a major reason is decades of pumping at two huge Delta pump stations run by the state and federal governments. Sometimes the pumps have to be throttled back to protect fish, which allows water that would otherwise be pumped south to flow to the ocean. That frustrates south-of-Delta water users.

Brown’s administration says the tunnels, by altering water flows through the estuary, would protect fish from the pumps and allow water to be more regularly pumped south.

Why is the project suddenly in doubt?

The board at Westlands Water District, a major farm irrigator in the San Joaquin Valley, stunned California’s water community Wednesday by voting 7-1 against helping to pay for the tunnels. It was the first vote by any major agency on WaterFix, and Westlands’ share would have been more than $3 billion. The district’s anxiety about project costs was well known, but project backers figured the district would postpone a decision. Westlands’ vote blows a big hole in the financing plan.

Would Westlands ever change its mind?

Doubtful, at least as the project exists now. Westlands’ chief gripe is that the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which operates the federal pumps, developed a cost-allocation method that exempts some water irrigation districts – the massive Friant Water Authority in particular – from having to participate. That puts more of the burden on Westlands, the largest federal contractor.

So it’s unlikely Westlands would jump back in without a change of heart from the Bureau of Reclamation. The bureau, in a statement issued right after the Westlands vote, indicated it wasn’t planning to change its financing approach to WaterFix.

“Everybody told (Reclamation) ahead of time it didn’t work. They clung to it,” said Jeff Kightlinger of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California. Metropolitan gets one-third of its water from the State Water Project and is a fierce advocate for the tunnels.

Wait – why are the feds involved? The tunnels are Jerry Brown’s project, right?

Yes, but the federal government has played a significant role in planning WaterFix. The state and federal governments run side-by-side delivery systems centered around the Delta, the State Water Project and the federal Central Valley Project. Both projects pump massive amounts of Northern California river water to south-of-Delta contractors such as Westlands, but they’re taking different approaches to funding their respective shares of the tunnels. The state is insisting that all of its south-of-Delta contractors contribute to the cost, or find another agency to take their share. The feds, because of the complicated system for delivering Central Valley Project water, has said certain districts don’t have to pay.

Would taxpayers be asked to pick up the slack?

That’s uncertain. All along, tunnels advocates have said WaterFix would follow the time-honored water project tradition of “beneficiary pays,” meaning all the costs would be borne by ratepayers of the south-of-Delta agencies whose supplies would be enhanced by the tunnels. The project got a black eye when federal auditors recently determined that the Bureau of Reclamation had improperly subsidized $50 million of the planning expenses.

Even San Joaquin Valley ag boosters in Congress, such as Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Tulare, don’t appear to favor taxpayer help for the tunnels. Nunes recently called WaterFix “a textbook boondoggle,” suggesting there isn’t much appetite in Congress for putting money into it. Nunes and other congressional Republicans have repeatedly tried to pass a bill that would rescind protections for fish and allow for more pumping at the Delta pumps, greatly reducing the need for the tunnels.

President Donald Trump may be a wild card, though. He has pledged to help San Joaquin Valley farmers with their water shortages. A former Westlands lobbyist named David Bernhardt is the new deputy secretary at the Department of the Interior, which oversees the Bureau of Reclamation, although Interior officials say Bernhardt has recused himself from issues involving Westlands..

The Trump administration had indicated “there was going to be some federal help coming,” said Los Banos farmer Cannon Michael, who receives water from the Central Valley Project and leads the San Luis & Delta-Mendota Water Authority. “That could be an avenue.”

Is there a third option for saving the project?

Possibly. Kightlinger, the manager at Metropolitan, suggested that “we develop a scaled-back project.” With little or no funding from the federal contractors, the State Water Project districts – led by Metropolitan and the farmers at the Kern County Water Agency – could build a smaller version of the tunnels. Both Metropolitan and Kern County have indicated they support WaterFix, although they haven’t formally committed yet.

Kightlinger said he isn’t sure if there’s political support from the water agencies for a state-only tunnels project, but it might have to be explored. “Engineering-wise, we know it’s possible,” he said. “Finance-wise, it’s possible.”

Kern County’s general manager, Curtis Creel, declined to comment on the idea of a project financed exclusively by state contractors.

A smaller project sounds like an easy solution.

Not necessarily. Experts say a WaterFix Lite could represent a dramatic departure from what’s currently being planned. A scaled-down project might not help the fish as much. After laboring for years to win environmental approvals for the tunnels, project backers might have to start all over again with the planning and red tape.

“You’re talking about a different configuration of the facilities, different operations and arguably different impacts,” said Kevin O’Brien, a Sacramento lawyer who is suing to block the tunnels on behalf of some Northern California government agencies.

Why would a smaller project be so different?

It largely has to do with with water flows and fish. The existing pumps are so powerful, they cause a portion of the Delta’s tributaries to flow in reverse, drawing fish into harm’s way at critical times. The tunnels plan, as currently envisioned, is supposed to fix that “reverse flow” problem and ensure fish safety while allowing the pumps to keep water deliveries on schedule. A smaller tunnel project, however, might mean the reverse flow phenomenon remains a serious threat to fish.

“It would diminish substantially the environmental benefits of reducing the reverse flows,” said Jay Lund of UC Davis’ Center for Watershed Sciences.

What are tunnels advocates doing right now?

They’re trying to stay the course. Metropolitan’s board of directors still plans to vote Oct. 10 on whether to participate in the current tunnels plan, said spokesman Armando Acuña. The Santa Clara Valley Water District is voting Oct. 17, “as far as I know,” said spokesman Marty Grimes. “I haven’t heard of any change yet.” The Kern County Water Agency is polling its 13 member agencies and plans to report the results to Brown’s administration by Oct. 12, according to Creel.

State officials, meanwhile, said the fight for WaterFix isn’t over. “The state is not going to walk away from its obligation to advance this critical upgrade” to water infrastructure, Natural Resources Secretary John Laird said Wednesday.

Dale Kasler: 916-321-1066, @dakasler,