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San Diego County Water Authority Mulls Over Bay Delta Project

September 12, 2013 1:30 p.m.


Jerry Meral, Deputy Secretary, California Natural Resources Agency

Dennis Cushman, Assistant General Manager, San Diego County Water Authority.

Related Story: San Diego County Water Authority Mulls Bay Delta Project


This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

CAVANAUGH: Our top story, state water officials are in San Diego this week talking about a major water supply proposal. The bay delta conservation project. The plan has a dual purpose, to make water transfers from the Sacramento San Joaquin delta to Southern California more reliable, and to restore the delta's threatened environment. But it's an understatement to say that not everyone is sold on the $25 million project. That's why officials are making the rounds to local water district, and the districts are trying to assess what's in it for them. My guest, Jerry Meral is secretary of the California natural resources agency. Welcome to the program.

MERAL: Thank you.

CAVANAUGH: Dennis Cushman is assistant general manager of the San Diego County water authority.

CUSHMAN: Thank you.

CAVANAUGH: Give us some more detail on this project, Jerry. Why do we need to renovate the delta?

MERAL: Southern California is quite reliant on taking water from the Sacramento San Joaquin delta. It's hundreds and hundreds of miles from here, but we do have pumping plants and aqueducts that bring water from there right to the San Diego area. And the delta is not as reliable as we wish. We get 30% of the water from Southern California from the delta, yet it has very poor levy systems, there are a lot of environmental problems in the delta that restrict the water supply. And so this plan is designed to improve the reliability of the water supply and restore the delta ecosystem.

CAVANAUGH: How does this plan make water from the delta more reliable?

WOO: Right now, the water supply is affected greatly by the endangered species act. When we want to pump water to send to Southern California, we find that we have endangered fish that are in front of the pumps and we can't pump. With this plan, we'd hope to restore the fish populations and make them more stable so the pumping is more reliable. Another factor is that the delta levies thought to be -- subject to severe earthquake.

CAVANAUGH: What does this plan that the governor has proposed, what does it do to alleviate the problems? Tell us about the tunnels planned.

WOO: There's two parts to it, you might say. The idea is to build tunnels connecting the pumping plants to the Sacramento river so if the delta did become available, we'd be able to still have a water supply, and also to change the direction of flow in the delta channels to be more natural so the fish can recover. The other part is to do a lot of work of habitat restoration in the region to bring the fish and other species back so they'll have less of an impact on the water supply.

CAVANAUGH: How much water do we import from there?

CUSHMAN: It accounts for about 20% of all San Diego County's water supply.

CAVANAUGH: And that comes to us from the Metropolitan Water District; is that correct?

CUSHMAN: Right. They are the largest of the state water contractors that purchase water from the bay delta. And the State of California delivers that water to metropolitan in the greater Los Angeles area, and we purchase that as part of the supply, which tells us Colorado River water and Bay Delta water.

CAVANAUGH: The price tag for this is enormous, $25 billion. How will the state pay?

MERAL: State and federal water users, and we think the impact would be on the average household about $5 a month. So that part will be paid for by the users. The environmental restoration elements will be paid for by future state bond acts.

CAVANAUGH: And aren't voters going to be asked to approve a water bond on the ballot in 2014?

MERAL: That's right. Right now, there is a water bond on the ballot in 2014. That is postponed in 2010 and 2012 because of the economic recession. And no final decision has been made whether it'll appear on the 2012 ballot. But as of now, it's on the ballot.

CAVANAUGH: Will the October charged to the various water districts in the state be based on how much water they use from the delta?

WOO: We would expect that to be true.

CAVANAUGH: $5 per customer, is that what you expect San Diego ratepayers would wind up paying?

CUSHMAN: Well, we've not seen the math behind that figure, but we're pretty skeptical. When you look at what metropolitan has done with the water rates over the last ten years, they're doubled them. And this adds $200 to an acre foot for the price we pay, our rates will go up 37%. If it turns out it's more like $4 hundred, we're looking at rates going up another 2/3. So it's a pretty significant cost. It's more than a billion dollar decision facing San Diego ratepayers, and a multibillion dollar decision facing the Metropolitan Water District.

CAVANAUGH: You bring me to ask you the kinds of questions that the art authority has for the state in regard to this project. What kinds of questions are you asking Jerry as he tries to sell in a sense this proposal to you guys?

CUSHMAN: The core of the questions around the financing are that the water agencies around the state that draw water from the Bay Delta, about 70% of the water from the delta goes to agricultural water agencies and agricultural users that serve farmers. And only about 30% go to urban contractors such as metropolitan. We heard great concern in the agricultural community that the prices for what it'll cost to fix the delta won't be affordable. So the questions we have been asking Jerry and other officials is are those agencies going to pay their fair share? Is it going to be the same price of water that an agricultural water customer buys than a metropolitan or San Diego rate payer buys? And if not, then what? And what's that going to do to the financing of the project and ratepayers in the community?

>>> What's the answer to that?

WOO: We don't know yet. We do believe that the agricultural water users can pay their fair share, and they've indicated us they expect to. But the arrangements of financing for this between the state and federal and the urban and agricultural water users is still being developed. Right now, we're very concentrating on just what the plan looks like, the environmental elements, the tunnels, location, and so on. They are right to answer those questions. We have to have answers, and we can't expect the water authority to make decisions without that kind of information.

CAVANAUGH: So I assume, Dennis, that the San Diego County Water Authority has not taken a formal position on this plan yet?

CUSHMAN: No, in fact just right now, we have our Board of Directors meeting going on. We have a series of review meetings, expert panels. We have a group of economist presenting to our Board of Directors today. And over the span of the next 4-6 months, we're going to be presenting a series of information and analyses about the various alternatives being proposed to address the water supply problems.

CAVANAUGH: The delta bay project had been reduced by half because of concerns from delta residents. Do you expect other major changes before this proposal moves forward?

MERAL: Well, it's possible that changes in the tunnel right-of-way and alignment could happen. But have done less than 10% of the project. We're still in the very early stages. And everything we do is to try to reduce the environmental and the social impacts of such a huge construction project. But I think the fundamentals of where it starts and ends up and so on can't change much because of the geography of the situation.

CAVANAUGH: And it's supposed to be starting in 2017?

MERAL: We would like to think if the project is financeable and everyone wants to build it and the permits are issued, we could start earlier than that. But that may be a conservative estimate.

CAVANAUGH: A coalition of environmental groups have put forward an alternative to this plan. It's called the portfolio based alternative. And it would basically encourage the state to rely on diversified water sources from reclamation projects to water storage systems along with a renovation of the Bay Delta. Have state officials rejected that plan?

MERAL: No, not at all. We actually endorse force of the plan. The idea that we need more water conservation, storage, desalting, those are virtually universally accepted concepts, and we certainly endorse them, the state endorses those. The key question is the tunnel sizing. They propose a relatively small tunnel, and we've reduce the our proposed tunnel size, so the two are converging. We think the one we're proposing, the 9,000 cubic feet per second is possibly the right one, but that's not a settled question.

CAVANAUGH: The diversified approach seems in line with how San Diego County has been dealing with these issues. We used to get most of our water from Northern California. Now is it only 20%?

CUSHMAN: Well, 20 years ago, we imported 95% of all water we used in San Diego County. And we've reduced our purchases in the district from 1991 to the current day by more than half. By the end of the decade we will have reduced our water from metropolitan by 2/3. We think that's a factor. In the metropolitan member agencies providing all their revenue start paying less and less net water that means the price per acre goes up. And guess who that hits?

CAVANAUGH: If we don't buy most of our water from the metropolitan water district anymore, with where's it coming from?

CUSHMAN: Well, we've diversified in partnership with the 24 water agencies, our agencies to develop more and more water recycling. Expanding surface reservoirs in San Diego County, through the imperial irrigation district water transfer. The canal lining projects that we provided in the valley desert. In Carlsbad, another 56,000 acre feet of locally produced water. And at the core is water conservation.

CAVANAUGH: What about the water reclamation plant that's in development? What are your hopes for that?

CUSHMAN: Well, the City of San Diego is studying a very exciting promising program to take recycled water and take it from outdoor uses and treating it to an ultrapure condition that it could be mixed with the potable drinking water supplies and expand that use by perhaps 90 thousand acre feet more here in San Diego. &%F0


CAVANAUGH: And one more question about what we're doing here to diversify, the new dam at San Vicente is supposed to increase our water storage capacity?

CUSHMAN: Yes. We're working on the final touches of that project to bring and up and operational. It brings it up to 242,000 acre feet.

CAVANAUGH: What does that do for us in terms of water reliability? It if we don't use the water, we have the capacity to store it now?

CUSHMAN: There's two key functions for that additional storage capacity. The first is emergency storage. About 52,000 acre feet of that will be set aside to be held here always in case we have an earthquake cutting us off from water supplies from the north. Another 100,000 acre feet of storage is carry-over storage. Where in wet years, we can sock it away. We have the capacity to put it away into storage very quickly and hold it for what we know will follow, one or more consecutive drier drought years.

CAVANAUGH: Jerry, just in my reading, of course you're the expert, I've come up against a number of criticisms. And it seems like this delta bay conservation project faces enormous obstacles. Would you agree?

MERAL: Well, I think there's a level of opposition in Northern California to any export of water. That was true in 1982. We have to recognize that, and people have legitimate concerns. If we can't give good answers to those questions, the project might not go forward. But I think statewide with more than 2/3 of the people in California reliant to some extent on the delta, there is also a very high level of support to solve this delta problem. And so I think in the end, the concerns of most people in the state to have a reline water supply will prevail and we'll go forward.

CAVANAUGH: What do you think the state has to do to make its way that we need this project?

MERAL: I think we have to demonstrate that we are responding to legitimate concerns. So if people in the delta say you're impacting our water supply, for example, we to show that if we are impacting it, we're mitigating our impacts. We have to show that the fisheries will improve. Then we have to show that this is an affordable project so they can say to their ratepayers this is a good investment for our water reliability.

CAVANAUGH: Thank you both very much.

MERAL: Thank you.

CUSHMAN: Thank you, Maureen.