Opinion: Consider ratepayer as California WaterFix costs mount

In this Tuesday, Feb. 23, 2016, file photo, people fish along the Sacramento River in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, near Courtland.(AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli, File)



The drip-drip-drip of bad news continues for Gov. Jerry Brown’s twin-tunnels project, the $17 billion plan to move water under the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta in 40-foot-wide tunnels up to 150 feet underground.

U.S. Interior Department spokesman Russell Newell dashed hopes for federal assistance, saying the department “does not expect to participate in the construction or funding” of the project known as California WaterFix.

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation had already informed districts with contracts for water from the federal Central Valley Project that they could opt out of paying for the 35-mile-long tunnels, which are not an official Reclamation project.

That left the districts with contracts from the State Water Project on the hook for the full cost of the tunnels. The board of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California agreed to cover about a quarter of the project’s cost, but the Westlands Water District in Fresno and the Santa Clara Valley Water District in the Bay area decided that WaterFix, as currently envisioned, is just too expensive.

Downsizing is an option, although some opponents of the tunnels believe that would require a new round of environmental studies for a project that has already been studied for a decade. It could also mean new hearings in front of state water right regulators, which have been underway for a year. However, environmental reports previously completed by the state included two smaller versions of the project: a single-tunnel alternative, and a plan for twin tunnels with reduced capacity.

Some environmentalists fear that the downsized versions could harm migrating fish, and other opponents note that the smaller project would not be capable of diverting large quantities of water during major storm events, one of the main goals of WaterFix.

Significant questions about the Delta tunnels remain unanswered. The state auditor recently reported that the Department of Water Resources has not completed an economic or financial analysis of the project to demonstrate its financial viability. The audit report also identified lapses in oversight and documentation of the design and construction phase.

With no federal money and some water districts in the state declining to participate, the cost of WaterFix would fall on a smaller pool of ratepayers already burdened by rising water bills. Officials should be very cautious before soaking them again.