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The Water Tunnel Boondoggle

Experts say the eye-popping costs of Governor Brown’s plan to build two giant water tunnels far outweigh the financial benefits. And taxpayers may be left holding the bag.

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Some experts, in fact, predict that the BDCP is destined to become a financial boondoggle, and that certain public agencies — namely San Joaquin Valley water districts like Westlands — would have an especially hard time meeting their debt obligations since the cost of the tunnels could make water prohibitively expensive for farming most crops. "I'm not sure how they would cope with the financial burden," said Jeffrey Michael, director of the Business and Forecasting Center at University of the Pacific in Stockton. "It's fairly predictable they won't be able to."

If the water districts default on what they owe for the BDCP project, taxpayers may be forced to shoulder the multibillion-dollar bill. And if that were to happen, the plan that is supposed to keep California's aging water system from crumbling could not only steamroll the Delta, but also swamp the state in debt.


Most of the snowmelt and rainfall in the Sierra Nevada and the Trinity Alps drain into the Delta via the Sacramento River in the north and the San Joaquin River in the south, creating a labyrinth of waterways, islands, and levees. This veritable water world has made the Delta an ecological and agricultural wonder. The estuary is a crucial spawning ground for salmon, sturgeon, and bass and a key stopover for millions of migratory birds traveling the Pacific flyway. The Delta itself also includes an agricultural industry, consisting primarily of small farms, valued at nearly $800 million a year. Certain Delta towns are known as the pear or asparagus capitals of the world thanks to their continuously replenished aquifers.

The abundance of freshwater has also made the Delta the wellspring for California's water system, and since the 1940s the state and federal government have redirected rivers of water from the estuary to San Joaquin Valley growers and Southern California city dwellers. That massive removal of fresh water has taken its toll on the Delta's ecosystem, contributing to the decimation of 12 of the area's 29 native fish species.

Environmental problems in the Delta also have a ripple effect on California's water users. When protected fish get sucked into the water pumps and pulverized, regulatory agencies halt water deliveries and send billions of gallons of freshwater through the bay to the Pacific Ocean in an attempt to maintain the health of the estuary. And if the Delta's ecosystem continues to deteriorate, the water supply for Central and Southern California could diminish by roughly 25 percent in the next half-century. "The current system is failing everybody," said UC Berkeley professor David Sunding, who's working closely with the state to develop the plan, "and BDCP points the ship in a different direction."

The project is ambitious. In fact, it's hard to overstate its grandeur. Building the tunnels is expected to cost roughly five times as much as the construction of the Hoover Dam when adjusting for inflation, and nearly a quarter of the Delta's mostly fertile farmland would be seized and literally turned upside down to create tidal wetlands. Despite its magnitude, however, a significant portion of the water project isn't subject to voter approval: The fate of the tunnels rests largely in the hands of a few water districts — a fact that frustrates many environmentalists. "We wouldn't ask oil companies to determine if fracking is safe for the environment," said Doug Obegi, an attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council. "Should we really be asking Westlands if pumping is safe for the environment?"

Because farmers need a reliable water supply to maintain crops, San Joaquin Valley growers arguably have the most to gain from the water tunnels. The Westlands Water District, which irrigates a large swath of land on the arid west side of the San Joaquin Valley, has long sought access to more Delta water. As the Express previously reported, Westlands has seen an explosion in highly profitable, water-intensive crops like almonds in recent years (see "California's Thirsty Almonds," 2/5). While such crops bring in hefty financial returns, they can wither and die if water is cut off for even one year, meaning they're risky to grow in areas with an unsteady supply of irrigation.

Because of the current drought, some 200,000 acres of Westlands farmland — about one-third of the area — could be fallowed this year, causing hundreds of millions of dollars in economic losses. "Just like you need a consistent paycheck to make your house payments," said Mike Wade, director of the California Farm Water Coalition, "farmers need a consistent water supply." And as the Delta becomes an increasingly unreliable spigot, Westlands is looking to the BDCP for relief.

But the plan also involves substantial risks for Westlands and other San Joaquin Valley farmers, because it doesn't guarantee a more dependable — let alone a more plentiful — water supply. According to the current draft proposal, the tunnels would only operate when water flows on the Sacramento River reach a certain threshold. During extremely dry years like the current one — which many climate scientists predict will become more common in the decades to come — the state and federal water projects would still reduce the region's water supply to a trickle or cut it off completely.

That fact troubles many San Joaquin Valley growers, who worry they could continue to face crippling water cutbacks even if the tunnels are constructed. "Our costs are somewhat nebulous, but [estimating the benefits of the project] is impossible to do," one grower said at a Westlands board meeting in January, according to a transcript of the meeting provided to the Express by Gary Lasky of the Sierra Club. "I want to be damn sure we have the right to get off the bus." Another farmer asked at the meeting whether the district could guarantee a stable water supply even if the Delta's ecosystem continues to deteriorate. "What happens if smelt and salmon continue to decline?" he said.

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