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California Water: Debating The Delta Tunnel Plan

A view of the Sacramento delta from the air on Sept. 19, 2017

Photo by Erik Anderson

Above: A view of the Sacramento delta from the air on Sept. 19, 2017

The state's water users will find out soon if they will be paying for the $17 billion tunnel project called the California WaterFix.

The controversial plan proposes building tunnels under the Sacramento Delta to secure the supply of water being sent south. But the plan is already finding itself in rough waters.

The $17 billion project has the backing of California Gov. Jerry Brown and Southern California’s largest water wholesaler, the Metropolitan Water District.

But farmers in the Westland’s Water District have decided the project is too expensive. That district was expected to pay about $3 billion as part of a funding formula that spreads the cost between state and federal water contractors.

Westland’s officials have hinted the project might still be alive, but that would mean changing how much they have to pay. It is not clear that change will happen.

19 million customers

The Los Angeles-based MWD is still pushing for the project as a way to secure the supply of water for roughly 19 million urban customers.

The agency’s board will decide on Oct. 10 whether it will spend at least $4 billion on California Waterfix. The district has hinted it might be willing to increase that share if other water district’s choose not to participate.

The initial $4 billion investment would add $2 to $3 a month to a typical residential water bill.

“That’s a big issue for our ratepayers in San Diego because ratepayers in San Diego pay about 25 percent of whatever Met spends money on,” said Dennis Cushman, assistant general manager of the San Diego County Water Authority.

RELATED: California Water District Defends Use Of Taxpayer Cash For State Water Project

The San Diego water agency does not have a position on the project, but water managers do have questions. Most center around the assumptions about how to pay for the massive project.

“Those assumptions are, the state water contractors, generally our urban customers, will pay 55 percent of the cost,” said Cushman.

Individual water districts will each vote on whether they will participate.

”The federal contractors, who are generally agricultural customers, will pay 45 percent of the costs. But those are assumptions. Those are not signed agreements by anybody,” Cushman said.

Project called 'crucial' to protect the delta’s endangered species

Brown is pushing for the state’s water districts to step up and pay. He has long argued that the project is crucial to protect the delta’s endangered species and to ensure that farms and homes continue to get water from the state water project.

“The delta is the heart and lungs for California’s state water supply,” said Grant Davis, director of the California Department of Water Resources.

He spoke to reporters while standing on the banks of the Sacramento River, just north of the delta. California Waterfix aims to build one of three new water intakes here.

“San Diegans and folks in L.A., all the way up throughout the state, rely on this system for a source of their water supply, not all, but a portion of it,” Davis said.

Twin underground tunnels

Water managers are looking for a water delivery system that is more reliable, and engineers spent years developing this new delivery system. Twin underground tunnels would carry the fresh water under the delta, 35 miles to the south. There the water would flow into the California Aqueduct and head south.

“The central matter is that we’re going to move the intake from the south to the north, to the Sacramento River where the water is fresh, where fish are in less harm’s way, where we aren’t creating reverse flows, so this is an upgrade to the delta system,” Davis said.

But building the tunnels will not be easy. It could take close to two decades to drill the underground throughways. And it will not be cheap. Estimates put the project’s price tag at about $17 billion.

That is a lot of money, but Davis argues it is worth it.

"We’re looking at the cost of water. And the cost of water really goes up when you don’t have it,” Davis said.

A region reshaped by man

The Waterfix project could mean big changes for the Sacramento Delta, an area that has been largely transformed from sweeping marshland to region reshaped by man.

Manufactured waterways slice through large swaths of productive farmland.

In spots, the channels have been deepened and widened to handle flood water or to allow large ships to reach the ports in Stockton and Sacramento.

Photo by Erik Anderson

A bird rookery on an island that sits in the middle of a manufactured water channel on Sept. 19, 2017

In other places, levee breaks have allowed water to rush into low-lying farmland created large shallow lakes.

The delta is a place where fresh water from the mountains mixes with salty ocean water pushed into the valley by tides.

“What we’re going to do is we’re going to go up here to some flooded islands so you get to see, kind of what the delta used to look like,” said Curt Schmutte, a consultant working with the Metropolitan Water District.

In most spots levees and farmland hold the upper hand, but in others, the shades of the past peek through.

Schmutte stands up in a small boat and points to a stand of tall reeds.

“If you’d gone back 200 years in time, this would’ve been 400,000 acres of this kind of habitat,” Schmutte said.

Parts of the delta are surprisingly natural even in man-made channels. In one spot birds have transformed a stand of trees on an island into a rookery, but much of the complicated delta habitat is troubled.

Salmon and delta smelt populations are critically low. Marshland that used to provide cover and food for the fish is in short supply.

“Restoring these lands up here in the north, where land surface elevations are relatively close to sea level will hopefully provide ecosystem services for salmon and native fish so their populations return,” said John Burau, a United States Geological Survey hydrologist.

Boosting those fish populations is critical if the state hopes to keep drawing fresh water from the delta. A massive pumping station, so powerful it can reverse tidal flows, sends up to 17 percent of the delta’s water south.

RELATED: California’s Giant Water Tunnels Win First Crucial Approval

But legal battles over the endangered fish have throttled the flow of water coming from the delta. Courts have limited the amount of water the state can draw during certain parts of the year.

California Waterfix backers say the new intakes to the north can be used when delta smelt are breeding. The pump in the south can be in service when salmon are threatened by the proposed intakes north of the delta. The tandem would allow state officials to draw on the delta's fresh water supply year round.

District officials will be taking official positions in votes scheduled over the next few weeks. Those votes will determine if there is enough financial support to move the project forward.

California Water: Debating The Delta Tunnel Plan


Erik Anderson, environment reporter, KPBS News



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Photo of Erik Anderson

Erik Anderson
Environment Reporter

opening quote marksclosing quote marksI focus on the environment and all the implications that a changing or challenging environment has for life in Southern California. That includes climate change, endangered species, habitat, urbanization, pollution and many other topics.

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