Courtland farmer Russ van Loben Sels describes how the local landscape could change if the twin tunnels plan comes to fruition. Randall Benton The Sacramento Bee
Courtland farmer Russ van Loben Sels describes how the local landscape could change if the twin tunnels plan comes to fruition. Randall Benton The Sacramento Bee

Delta News

If Jerry Brown can’t sell California on two Delta tunnels, would just one fly?

By Dale Kasler

dkasler@sacbee.com

November 06, 2017 03:58 AM

UPDATED November 07, 2017 08:19 AM

It sounds like a nice, elegant compromise for a California water project swamped in uncertainty: If there isn’t enough money to build two Delta tunnels, why not build just one?

Drastically downsizing Gov. Jerry Brown’s tunnels wouldn’t merely save money. It would also reduce the project’s footprint and make it more palatable to some of its critics. A coalition of environmental groups has endorsed a lone-tunnel approach.

Nothing is ever simple in California water, however, and scaling back the $17.1 billion twin tunnels plan is no exception. Reducing the size and scope of California WaterFix, as the project is officially known, would create complications of its own – and might not win over most of the opposition.

Advocates of the twin tunnels say a smaller project would translate into less protection for the endangered fish that live in the Delta and supposedly would be helped by the twin-tunnel setup. Proponents also say a single tunnel, while less expensive as a whole, would likely cost more on a per-gallon basis than a twin-tunnel plan.

Never miss a local story.

Sign up today for a free 30 day free trial of unlimited digital access.

Most Delta residents, environmentalists and other foes aren’t sold on a smaller project, either. They say WaterFix in any form would harm the estuary’s diminishing fish population and degrade the quality of the water used to irrigate the Delta’s vineyards and orchards. In their view, one tunnel is probably just as bad as two.

“I don’t think it’s clear sailing for either path,” said Dante Nomellini, a Stockton lawyer who represents Delta farmers who are fighting the project in court.

The one-tunnel alternative has been floated for years but didn’t start to become a serious option until Westlands Water District, which serves farmers in a major swath of the San Joaquin Valley, rejected Brown’s project in September. That erased at least $3 billion in funding for WaterFix, which is supposed to be paid for by south state water agencies that pull water out of the Delta. Many other agricultural agencies have refused to back the project as well, leaving a funding gap of $6 billion or more.

With the project struggling, influential elected officials such as U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein began pushing the idea of one tunnel. Then in mid-October the concept gained considerably more momentum. That’s when Santa Clara Valley Water District rejected the twin tunnels and voted instead to offer “conditional support” for a less expensive single tunnel.

State officials promptly agreed to consider a “smaller, more affordable project,” as Department of Water Resources Director Grant Davis put it.

The Brown administration and its allies say they haven’t abandoned the twin-tunnels plan, which is designed to keep Delta fish from getting killed in the powerful pumps that ship water south while improving the reliability of those shipments.

“The current project was chosen as the preferred alternative because it most effectively met the need and addressed the conflict between (water delivery) operations and species,” said Lisa Lien-Mager, a spokeswoman for the state Natural Resources Agency.

Project backers still hope “there’s a way to crack that nut on the financing and stick with the original project,” said Jeff Kightlinger, general manager of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, a leading advocate for the twin tunnels.

But if the $6 billion funding gap can’t be bridged, “then I think you pivot and look at, OK, something smaller,” Kightlinger said. “We are starting the technical work to look at what a smaller project would look like.” Metropolitan, which serves 19 million urban residents, has pledged $4 billion toward the tunnels, more than any other agency.

As envisioned by Brown’s administration, WaterFix would remedy two giant, interconnected problems facing the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, the estuary that serves as the hub of California’s elaborate water-delivery system.

Decades of pumping by the State Water Project and its federal counterpart, the Central Valley Project, have wrecked the Delta’s ecosystem and left some fish species in danger of extinction, including the smelt and winter-run Chinook salmon.

Perhaps the biggest issue is that the state and federal pumping stations, located at the south end of the Delta, are so powerful that they can reverse the flow of some crucial river channels inside the estuary, drawing fish toward predators and the pumps themselves. To comply with the Endangered Species Act, the pumps sometimes have to be shut off or throttled back, which allows water to bypass the pumps and flow to the ocean.

The problem figures to get worse as the federal and state agencies that oversee the estuary’s ecosystem contemplate stricter regulations. That will mean less water reaching the pumps in the coming years, to the growing dismay of the south-of-Delta water agencies.

WaterFix would reroute how water reaches the pumps in order to make them less hazardous to fish. By easing the fish problem, WaterFix would enable the pumps to operate more reliably, improving water deliveries to the southern half of the state.

Brown’s current plan is to divert a portion of the Sacramento River – no more than 9,000 cubic feet per second – at a spot near Courtland. That water would be piped through a pair of underground tunnels, 40 feet in diameter, approximately 40 miles south to the pumping stations outside of Tracy. By having this water delivered directly to their doorstep, the pumps wouldn’t have to work as hard, according to Brown’s administration. The “reverse flow” or “cross-Delta” problem would be improved dramatically, and the pumps could operate more reliably without harming fish.

So how would one tunnel work? Four years ago a coalition of environmental groups proposed building a single underground tunnel, with one-third the carrying capacity. It would cost half as much as the twin tunnels.

The Natural Resources Defense Council, one of the leaders of the coalition, says the proposal represents a sensible compromise: One tunnel would help shore up deliveries to the south state water districts, especially in wet winters when there’s plenty of water sloshing through the Delta. At the same time, by restricting the amount of water being moved through the tunnels, the project would force the south-of-Delta districts to make do with less water from the estuary than they’d get with two tunnels, said Doug Obegi, a lawyer in the NRDC’s San Francisco office.

The smaller plan would free up billions of dollars that the south state agencies could spend on recycling, conservation and other programs to improve their water supplies, Obegi said.

By diverting less water from the Sacramento River, the one-tunnel approach could make WaterFix seem less frightening to Delta landowners who’ve come to rely on the relatively pristine waters of the Sacramento.

“You have a physical constraint on how much you can take out of the Sacramento,” said Jeffrey Mount of the Public Policy Institute of California, which has advocated for one tunnel. “It achieves multiple political objectives. It is less expensive.”

Others believe the one-tunnel idea has serious flaws, however. The less water that flows through the tunnels, the harder the pumping stations would have to work to bring water to the south state. That could undermine the efforts to ease the “reverse flow” problem that’s had such harmful effects on fish populations.

“The idea of a single tunnel … doesn’t really resolve the issue of cross-Delta flows,” said Peter Moyle, a biologist at UC Davis’ Center for Watershed Sciences. “From a fish perspective, it doesn’t help them much.”

Kightlinger, the Metropolitan official, said the cost savings from scaling back to one tunnel might not be as generous as some advocates believe. And the south-of-Delta agencies paying for the project might wind up spending more for each gallon of water than they would with twin tunnels.

“Your cost of purchasing tunnel bore machines, getting into the ground – those things are the same regardless of what size you build it,” Kightlinger said. “Procurement, permitting, land issues – the per-unit cost is likely going to be a little more.”

Hardcore WaterFix opponents remain unconvinced of the virtues of a smaller project.

They argue that diverting a portion of the Sacramento River’s flows – even a comparatively tiny amount – would deprive fish of desperately needed water at crucial points in the Delta and leave much of the estuary mired in saltier, lower-quality water from the San Joaquin River.

“The Delta water quality … is going to turn into a toxic pool,” said Nomellini, the lawyer for Delta landowners. “The Delta survival depends to a great extent on Sacramento River water going through it.”

Dale Kasler: 916-321-1066, @dakasler