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California Water: Debating The Delta Tunnel Plan

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

California Water: Debating The Delta Tunnel Plan

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.

A bird rookery on an island that sits in the middle of a manufactured water channel on Sept. 19, 2017
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
California Water: Debating The Delta Tunnel Plan GUEST:Erik Anderson, environment reporter, KPBS News

Midday Edition. I am Maureen Cavanaugh. California warty uses will find out soon if they will be paying for a $17 million tunnel project called what effects. KPBS departed Eric Anderson says the controversial cause of designed to secure the flow of water. As the region struggles with the changing environment.Most of the Delta landscape shaped by men. Manufactured water ways line through a large swath of deductive farmland. In spots the channels have been deepened and widened in other places levee breaks have created large lakes. The Delta is a place where fresh water from the mountains mixes with salty ocean water, pushed into the Valley by tides. Consultant points to a map showing where land and water stand in opposition.Will go appeared to some flooded islands.In most spots, levees and farm owned the land. Shades of the past week through. C if you go back to hundred years in time, this would have been a 400,000 acre of this type of habitat.Parts are surprisingly natural. Even in man-made channels. An island into a [ Indiscernible ]. Much of the habitat is troubled. Salmon and Delta populations are critically low. John Barroso, hydrologist says marshland is to provide cover and food for fish is in short supply.Restoring these lines will hopefully provide ecosystem for salmon in a fish. So the population returns.That is critical. The state hopes to keep drawing water from the doctor. A massing pumping station. Sending up to 70% of the Delta water South. Legal battles over the endangered fish restricted the flow of water. Brent Davis is the director of the resources department. He's standing next to the Sacramento River north of the Delta. Everyone has a stake in securing the regional mortise of my.The Delta is the heart and lungs in the state of California water supply. San Diego folks in LA, up state the system. As a source of water. Smacked water management with more certainty, spending years developing another delivery system propose adding three intakes here the Sacramento River. Twin underground tunnels carry the freshwater 35 miles to the south.We will move the intake from the South to the North up on the Sacramento River weight of water is fresh. Where fresh or less harm's way. Fish. And this is not great to the Delta system.Building that tunnels will not be easy. It could take close to two decades to do drill. And it will not be cheap. Estimates putting the price tag at about $17 billion. Conceding that is a lot of money. Like his boss and him, argued it is worth it.We are looking at the cost of water. In the cost of water goes up you do not have it.Seven California largest wholesale is a big backer of the project. It is considering spending $4 million to secure a shared water coming from the Delta. The San Diego County water Authority's is that will add to to three dollars per month to local water customer bills.That is a big issue. They pay about 25% of whatever they spend money on. Smacked the local water agency does have a position. And they have questions. Most centered around the assumptions about how to pay for the project. Smacked those of the state water contractors, urban customers paying 55% of the cause. Federal contractors agricultural customers will pay 45% of the cost. Those are assumptions. They are not agreements. Smacked the state, largest, voting against the tunnels. Westlands water District is not prepared to spend $3 billion in a plan calls too expensive or its farmers. Another big vote on the project comes next month when Metropolitan water District weizen. Ultimately the fate lies in both rural and urban water districts. Most do to decide this fall whether they will buy in or opt out. It is unclear if enough close not to cover the projects cost.Joining KPBS report --The San Diego water Authority does not have a firm opinion. Working to make San Diego as independent of the Sacramento Delta as possible. Will the CW a go on whether to participate?Yes and now. They do not get an independent boat. Board of Directors is not going to get together and vote on whether or not they are going to be a part of the project. But they have a small slice of the Metropolitan water District board. That 70% of the vote, I think there are four votes control. And they will have input but it is not really meaningful. Unclear if there are more than 50% of the board of the Metropolitan water District opposed to the project.As the story Liza, a farming district says they do not want to spend their share of $3 billion in the water fixed object. Since so much of the project is aimed for fresh water for urban areas, what will the agricultural areas get out of this? B they get it as well.Irrigating farms in the central Valley. Thinking about 45% roughly of the water that comes out of the Delta area, urban areas get about 55%. And that is the way they breakdown finding. Urban areas, 55% cost, and agricultural area 45%. I think it's clear, farmers feel like that is too much of a burden for them to carry. It is now they have 19 million customers they can spread out the cost in the district. They have roughly 600 farmers that will have to pay this be billion dollars. And it is just too much.If freshwater diverted to the Delta and underground tunnels will increase the saltwater itself?It depends. They have moved intake valves from the southern end of the Delta and want to move them to the place where the Sacramento River flows into the Delta. North to the Delta. It is not clear how much that would reduce the freshwater flowing into the Delta. I will have impact on the creation. And it depends upon how much water is drawn. And whether or not it impacts. If they ever -- if a day for 90% of the rush water yes it will get saltier. But I do not think they can do that. That would endanger the fish population they're trying to protect. Student the fate of the Delta and other fish populations in the Delta, it has become a political football over the years peening environmentalist against farmers. How does it fix the problem?There are some questions as to whether or not the war to fix problem is going to be able to solve the issue. And the way it has been presented to me, this past week, they are using water to fix a habitat problem here is the thing with Dr., it has been overbuilt in over managed, it is just not a natural system anymore. That is one of the reasons why the Delta smelt in the southern part, having problems. They live in a system that is no longer design for them to survive well. In the water fixed project is saying, in the summertime, when the Delta smelt free, we will not take water from the South. And we will take water from the north. In the wintertime when the salmon moving up to Sacramento we will not take water from the north but take it from the southern part. I think it is fair to ask, do not have the answer. But whether or not this exchange of water is providing a solution to what is really habitat problem.Is the entire price tag for this project going to be paid by water consumers? Is there any state or federal money going into it?That is a good question. We are going to find out over the next month or so, how many water districts are willing to step up and pay. That is something that has not been decided. We already know there is a big three billion-dollar hold on the federal contractor side. And that is a big chunk of money. We are not sure if all of that agricultural or other customers will sign on. Not sure if urban water customers will sign on. And I think the best we can do at this is to wait and see boats. To approve it. And the amount of money willing to spend. Then you asked the question do we have enough? Question we try different funding sources? Or is the project essentially dead?Is that what happens if they give a go ahead for the California water fixed project? Need to figure out the financing?That is the crux of it. Environmental impact studies have been done. And now it is just the brass tacks of coupes the project. $17 billion is not a small amount of money. Metropolitan indicated when they fell in October, willing to spend up to $4 billion and willing to spend more to secure more water from the state water project. But I do not get the sense from them can pick up the entire cost of the project. That is too much for their customers. In theEric Anderson, thank you.My pleasure.