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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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The Bay Delta Conservation Plan is often compared to public works projects from past eras, when engineers built first and asked questions later. "It's a 20th-century planning process in a 21st-century world," said Rod Smith, a water economist for the consulting firm Stratecon Inc. For example, not only is the financing of the project still in doubt, but federal biologists warn that because the tunnels would divert so much freshwater from the Delta, the habitat restoration plan might actually do little to benefit certain endangered and threatened fish species, resulting in continued water cutbacks in years to come.

And while the benefits of BDCP remain murky, the costs to the Delta — both physical and economic — are crystal clear. If the plan moves forward, the region would turn into a construction zone for at least a decade. Thousands of dump trucks would transport tons of tunnel muck in and out of the area daily, clogging the two-lane levee roads. The quiet Delta nights would be interrupted by round-the-clock pounding of pile drivers. Dozens of homes and businesses would be relocated, and tens of thousands of acres of Delta's farmland would be sacrificed.

Opposition in the Delta, not surprisingly, is reaching a fever pitch. Signs demanding that the state "Stop the Tunnels" and "Save Our Delta" blanket roads and highways, protestors rally at Department of Water Resources meetings, and some residents want to put the project on a referendum ballot (the tunnels plan, though, was crafted so that it would be very difficult to place it on a ballot).

One of the biggest fears is that the plan could ruin the Delta's culture and way of life. "All you need to do is take a canoe down one of the sloughs, and just take your time and watch and experience it," said Tim Neuharth, a pear farmer whose family has tilled the north Delta's soil since the gold rush. "You'll see how beautiful it is here."

Neuharth works 260 acres of pears, stone fruit, and wheat on Sutter Island, one of sixty small islands in the Delta. The mineral-rich soil (the byproduct of eons of decaying swamp vegetation), abundant water, hot days, and cool nights make the area perfect for growing pears, and a few of Neuharth's trees have been alive for more than a century. Most of Neuharth's neighbors also operate on a fairly small scale, practice ecologically friendly farming practices, and have lived and worked in the region for generations. "People have put a lot of blood, sweat, and tears into farming and maintaining this place," he said, "so it's a little hard to let go."

But if BDCP moves forward, Neuharth might be forced to let go. To construct the tunnels the state would have to remove water from the land surrounding its forty-mile path, causing groundwater to sink ten to twenty feet in some areas. If water tables drop, people could lose their supply for years. Since the tunnels would weaken flows on the Sacramento River, seawater from the Pacific could also creep into the estuary. In a worst-case scenario, the freshwater channels could become so saline that they would contaminate water tables and kill crops, including Neuharth's pear orchards. "People ask, 'What happens if your water goes elsewhere?' And the answer is, 'We're out of business,'" he said. "The area will all go up into smoke, turn into something vastly different, and it will never come back to the way it was."

Although BDCP's proponents often accuse the plan's critics of resorting to hyperbole and say the financial questions will be addressed after an operating permit is secured, it's hard to overlook the fact that the project could choke taxpayers with debt while simultaneously damaging the Delta region. "It's a back-of-the-envelope diagram blown up to full size," said Rosenfield of the Bay Institute, referring to the fact that the plan, although sweeping, does not appear to have been well thought out. "It doesn't make sense economically. It doesn't make sense legally. It contradicts the state's policies. It's hugely expensive. And it's incredibly uncertain. I can't see how this plan as currently drafted goes forward because it doesn't provide anyone with what they want." 

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