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San Jose Mercury News
California water: Silicon Valley leaders express skepticism of Gov. Jerry Brown's Delta tunnels plan
Posted: Tue Jan 26 20:06:13 MST 2016
SAN JOSE — Three of Gov. Jerry Brown's top water lieutenants came to Silicon Valley on Tuesday to make the case for his $17 billion plan to build two huge tunnels under the Delta to more easily move water from north to south.
But rather than embracing the idea, five of the seven board members of the Santa Clara Valley Water District — whose support is considered critical to the controversial project — instead voiced skepticism. Their concerns ranged from the price tag to environmental impacts to whether Santa Clara County property owners could be left with property tax increases without a public vote to pay for future cost overruns.
"For me there's a lot of uncertainty," said board Chairwoman Barbara Keegan. "I don't want urban water users to end up subsidizing rural water users."
Vice Chairman John Varela added: "We are talking about potential decisions we could make that very possibly could create extinction of species. I don't want to do that. Not on my watch."
Most of the water agencies supporting the tunnel plan are in Southern California and the Central Valley. The Santa Clara Valley Water District has so far been the Bay Area's largest supporter, which allows Brown to say the project isn't marked by the same north-south rivalry that resulted in a 1982 defeat at the ballot box of a similar "peripheral canal" plan he backed.
Brown's current plan is to build two tunnels, each 40 feet in diameter and 35 miles long, under the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta. The idea is to reduce reliance on the massive state and federal pumps at Tracy — which are sometimes shut down to protect endangered salmon, smelt and other fish.
But environmentalists, Delta farmers and some Northern California lawmakers are trying to kill the proposal. They call it a water grab by Los Angeles and large corporate farmers in the Central Valley that would harm the water quality of the San Francisco Bay and the Delta, a vast network of sloughs and wetlands.
So far, the Santa Clara Valley Water District has contributed $13.7 million toward the $250 million the state has spent on reams of studies and analyses of the proposal. Other water agencies, including the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, Westlands Water District in Fresno and the Kern County Water Agency, have contributed the rest.
State officials finished a draft environmental study last year. After the final version is completed this summer, they plan to ask the local water agencies for another $1.2 billion to fund engineering and design studies, said Nancy Vogel, spokeswoman for the state Natural Resources Agency.
The Brown administration says that the local water agencies who support the plan also would be expected to pay the $15 billion construction cost by raising their customers' water rates and property taxes.
The water agencies, including the Santa Clara Valley district — which provides drinking water and flood protection to 1.9 million people — must decide soon whether to continue to fund the studies or pull out. Earlier this month, the district's board forced out CEO Beau Goldie, in part over his robust support for the project, which some board members said had exceeded their level of comfort at times.
On Tuesday, Mark Cowin, director of the state Department of Water Resources, urged the agency to support the twin tunnels.
If built, Cowin said, the project would deliver about 4.9 million acre-feet of water a year from the Delta, enough for roughly 25 million people a year. That amount, he said, is roughly the same as what is being delivered now in an average year.
Some agencies, particularly in farm areas, have asked why they would spend billions of dollars for a project that delivers no more water than they are getting now. But Cowin said that the tunnels are needed to help improve the system's reliability during earthquakes, in addition to offering flexibility so water can be taken out of the Delta at a new spot — farther north on the Sacramento River near the town of Courtland. That, he said, would mean not having to rely as much on the Tracy pumps.
"This isn't a new water supply," Cowin said. "It's a modernization of an existing project."
Cowin said the price is high, but it would cost only $5 a month for urban users.
Two other top Brown officials, Chuck Bonham, director of the state Department of Fish and Wildlife, and David Okita, director of ecosystem restoration for the Natural Resources Agency, highlighted the fact that the state also plans to restore 30,000 acres of wetlands and floodplains around the Delta.
"I'm thankful you are willing to take the time to look beyond the bumper stickers," Bonham told the board.
More than a dozen people spoke, representing some of the largest environmental groups in California, along with the League of Women Voters. All came out against the project.
Jonas Minton, a former deputy director of the state Department of Water Resources, said that Santa Clara Valley district will face costs of about $500 million if all the major water agencies now involved decide to move forward. If Kern County pulls out, that rises to $570 million. If only Metropolitan and Santa Clara Valley are left, the cost to Santa Clara ratepayers rises to $1.5 billion, he said.
"We haven't gotten an answer yet that they are putting the money up," he said, suggesting instead that Santa Clara partner with the Contra Costa Water District to enlarge Los Vaqueros Reservoir in eastern Contra Costa County and share the water.
Other critics said the district should rely more on water recycling, conservation and stormwater capture. They argued that the tunnels are so large because Los Angeles and powerful farm agencies will eventually weaken environmental guarantees and drain more water from the north.
"This proposal will harm salmon. It's way too big," said John McManus, executive director of the Golden Gate Salmon Association.
Two water district board members, Tony Estremera and Nai Hsueh, expressed support for the plan, noting that the district gets 40 percent of its water supply from the Delta.
"Cost should be one consideration," Hsueh said. "But it shouldn't be the entire consideration."
Paul Rogers covers resources and environmental issues. Contact him at 408-920-5045. Follow him at Twitter.com/PaulRogersSJMN.