Skelton: Delta tunnels the most expensive state public works project ever — but what are we buying?


By George Skelton
Los Angeles Times

The most expensive state public works project ever would be financed primarily by Southern California water users. But it’s not exactly clear what they’d be buying.

Gov. Jerry Brown’s $17-billion twin-tunnels project in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta would either:

Deliver more water to Southern California than it gets today;

Deliver less;

Deliver the same.

There are wide-ranging views about how California’s largest water hole should be divvied up. More for Southern California homes and industry? More for thirsty San Joaquin Valley farms? More for tanking Delta salmon and other endangered species?

Nothing new there, but it’s all colliding as key government entities head in seemingly conflicting directions.

The answer is important for Southland water ratepayers because their monthly bills would rise to bankroll most of the ambitious project. What benefit would they receive in return?

The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, which services 19 million customers, estimates average monthly bills would increase by $4.80. But who really knows? That assumes tunnel construction wouldn’t balloon into significant cost overruns like virtually every other big government project.

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This is the project in a clamshell: Two 35-mile, 40-foot-wide tunnels under the Delta from the estuary’s northern end on the Sacramento River to aqueducts at the southern edge. The water would flow into the San Joaquin Valley and be pumped over the Tehachapi Mountains to Southern California.

For half a century, the water has been fed into the aqueducts by giant southern Delta pumps that have reversed San Joaquin River flows, confusing migrating baby salmon. The pumps chomp up all manner of fish, including salmon and endangered tiny native smelt. Courts have tightened the pump valves to protect the critters, angering valley farmers.

The tunnel operation would be more fish-friendly with modern screening. And water siphoned off the Sacramento River in the northern Delta would be fresher than what’s pumped now from the more brackish southern region.

But freshwater flows into the Delta would be rerouted into the tunnels. Little Delta communities, small farmers and environmentalists are fighting the project. They envision saltwater intrusion from the San Francisco Bay. They point out that freshwater fish — even salmon tykes — need fresh water. They’re crying “water grab.”

Southern California gets 30 percent of its water from the Delta.

The tunnels would carry 9,000 cubic feet of water per second. But roughly half of the Delta’s exported water still would be fed into the aqueducts by the southern pumps, killing fish.

In recent days, the question of the project’s benefits to ratepayers has been raised indirectly in reports issued by the Metropolitan Water District and the powerful state Water Resources Control Board.

The MWD offered a rosy projection of increased Delta water imports to board members voting Tuesday to reaffirm a 65 percent, $11-billion investment in the project.

It envisioned roughly 1 million acre-feet more Delta water being exported annually through the State Water Project if the tunnels are built. About …read more

Source:: The Mercury News – Politics

      

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