What is the Twin Tunnels project?
It is Governor Jerry Brown’s grand vision to build a gigantic water conveyance system around the Sacramento/San Joaquin Delta. The project would consist of two tunnels, each 40 feet in diameter and 35 miles long, buried up to 150 feet beneath the heart of the Delta. The tunnels would convey Sacramento River water to Southern California. The tunnels will do nothing to expand statewide water supplies. What they will do is provide more water to Southern California farms and cities, and Brown hopes they will stabilize water deliveries.The plan originally included an $8 billion environmental component, but plans for salvaging the ecology of the Delta are now largely off the table.
Who Would Benefit?
Corporate agribusinesses as well as the Kern County Water Agency and the Westlands Water District support the Twin Tunnels. These water agencies are located on the dry southwest side of the San Joaquin Valley and provide water to California’s most powerful corporate agribusinesses. These agribusinesses grow and export water-intensive crops such as cotton and almonds. In addition, the oil companies need water for fracking. The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California (Los Angeles, Orange County, etc.) and other Southern California water agencies are also backing the tunnels.
The San Francisco Chronicle, Contra Costa Times and Sacramento Bee are among the newspapers opposed to the tunnels.
The environmental community says the tunnels would degrade the largest and richest estuary west of the Mississippi. They say current water being exported to the south is already affecting the health of the Delta fisheries, and Delta farmers question whether the increased diversions around the Delta will keep adequate flows to prevent saltwater intrusion from ruining their farmlands.
Diversion of fresh water from the Sacramento River also threatens the ecological destruction of San Francisco Bay. It would increase concentrations of salinity, mercury and pesticides in the estuary. The current system has already caused drastic reductions in important fish and wildlife populations and overall water quality.
Who would pay?
The proposal has not been submitted to the legislature and there are no plans to have it on the ballot. Brown talks about a $17 billion cost, but this is just the cost of construction. Construction, financing, operation and environmental mitigation is estimated to eventually cost over $50 billion and some say the final bill could exceed $100 billion.
It appears that water districts in central and Southern California such as the Metropolitan, Westland and Kern Water Districts would be responsible for 25 to 75 percent of the debt over 50 years. They are members of the State Water Contractors Association, which has already ponied up some $200 million for eight years of planning. The state needs another $2.2 billion soon to fund engineering and design studies, and it needs assurance that enough water districts will participate to pay the $17 billion cost.
The Contra Costa Water District, East Bay Municipal Utilities District and the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission have all decided they want nothing to do with participating in the funding of the tunnels. The Santa Clara Valley Water District has voiced skepticism over both the price tag and the environmental impact of the tunnels, voicing concern that Santa Clara County property owners could be left with property tax increases without a public vote to pay for future cost overruns. Just last month, some of Brown’s top lieutenants came to present their case to the water district board. The district has already contributed nearly $14 million towards studies, and there was talk of their contributing $500 million more.
It appears that the board may be leaning towards discontinuing further support of the project. This would be a blow to Brown because he is trying to claim support for the project from both Northern and Southern California.
The tunnels would burden rate payers – especially Southern California ratepayers-with ruinous debt. Individual ratepayers could expect water bills to spike and stay stratospherically high for at least three decades needed to service the debt.
Corporate agriculture interests would also pay, but at a much cheaper rate. Southern California ratepayers and California taxpayers already subsidize water for Westlands and Kern, and these tunnels would make that subsidy much larger. Finally, California taxpayers could be on the hook for $3 to 5 billion of environmental cleanup and mitigation costs.
Planning for the tunnels is far from complete. However, state contractors have already readied plans to acquire as many as 300 farms in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta by eminent domain to make way for the tunnels. Farmers in areas including Alameda and Contra Costa counties will be given 30 days to negotiate a sale, or else have a forced sale. The farmers are fighting against the construction of the tunnels and are hoping to win.
It was significant that in Brown’s latest State of the State address in January there was no direct mention of the tunnels, a project which is “beset with cost and environmental doubts” (San Francisco Chronicle, Jan. 22, 2016).
This article first appeared in the February 17, 2016 issue of the Rossmoor News, authored by Jeanne Thomas.