No light at the end of delta tunnel yet

FILE – In this Feb. 23, 2016 file photo, people try to catch fish along the Sacramento River in the San Joaquin-Sacramento River Delta, near Courtland, Calif. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli, File

This time last week, support for the controversial California WaterFix twin-tunnel Delta water project looked to have finally dried up.

Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, which supplies much of the water to the Southland and was a major supporter of the two-tunnel plan, seemed ready to put forward about $5 billion for a single tunnel after it was unable to secure commitments from agricultural districts to buy into the full project.

But that changed abruptly on Friday afternoon. Now, following a week of reversals, MWD is set to vote on providing the lion’s share of the funding for either option at its meeting on Tuesday.

The change of heart came after the Municipal Water District of Orange County, a member of the MWD, voted to encourage consideration for bankrolling much of the two-tunnel plan — even without assurances of reimbursement from the Central Valley — at a cost of $10.8 billion.

MWD’s own staff is recommending the one-tunnel plan, citing “increased financial risk” to MWD from financing the full-scale project.

While we appreciate staff’s attempts to shield the agency, and ratepayer, from greater risk, if the plan is to build two tunnels, it should do so in a way that offers the greatest benefit in the most fiscally responsible way. That means building them at the same time, when the cost would be around $17 billion for both, not roughly $11 billion for just one.

But, it should also go forward at a time when it is clear the local ratepayer will not be saddled with a disproportionate amount of the cost. Without any commitments from those big irrigation districts, now isn’t the right time. MWD should hold off on approving the project until it is in a position to say how the financing hole created by the absence of the agricultural districts will be filled.

Late last year, when Westlands Water District, the largest agricultural water district in the state, refused to participate in the WaterFix, citing high costs to farmers, pressure mounted on Southern California water districts to shoulder a greater share of the cost burden.

And while Orange County seems ready to shoulder that burden, representatives from other MWD members in Los Angeles and San Diego have raised concerns about the cost of financing the twin tunnels. Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti has also expressed opposition to the twin tunnels plan, while the L.A. City Council voted last month to oppose the staged construction of the tunnel project if it results in higher or disproportionate costs to Los Angeles ratepayers.

We care about those things, too. And, considering widespread opposition from NRDC and other environmental groups, perpetual lawsuits — and therefore delays and higher costs — are inevitable. That makes it even more important to get the financials in order now.

Clearly, something must be done to ensure the reliable delivery of water. Southern California needs diversified water options. Water recycling, storage, desalination, storm-water management and the California WaterFix are all parts of the path forward. But the latter needs to be done in a thoughtful way, not at the 11th hour.

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