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Brown administration says it’s willing to consider one-tunnel approach to Delta project


Silicon Valley’s water district Wednesday rejected Gov. Jerry Brown’s plan to build twin tunnels beneath the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta but said it would support a smaller, less expensive project. A top state official said the Brown administration is willing to consider such an approach.

The Santa Clara Valley Water District’s board voted 7-0 to give the Delta plan “conditional support,” but only if it involves one tunnel instead of two. The board’s vote indicated the district would be willing eventually to commit more than $200 million to the project. That’s well below the $600 million or more in support it had been considering.

“It’s clearly going to be a smaller project than what was originally proposed,” said board member Gary Kremen.

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Santa Clara’s vote appears to fuel the momentum toward scaling back the project, known officially as California WaterFix. Board Chairman John Varela said he was told recently by John Laird, Brown’s Natural Resources secretary, that the administration is “open to the idea of a single tunnel as opposed to twin tunnels.”

Grant Davis, director of Brown’s Department of Water Resources, told board officials that the administration could support Santa Clara’s approach. “We’d be willing to work with that,” he said shortly before the board voted.

But Erin Mellon, a spokeswoman for DWR, insisted the state isn’t abandoning the concept of two tunnels.

“We’re still advocating for WaterFix as it’s structured today,” she said.

Brown, in an emailed statement, said Tuesday’s vote “is a major step forward for California WaterFix and ensures that Santa Clara will have the water it desperately needs.”

Brown’s administration has begun floating the idea of a scaled-back tunnels project in the past few weeks. The go-small approach emerged after major agricultural irrigator Westlands Water District, which gets Delta water from the federal Central Valley Project, refused to back the $17.1 billion tunnels project. Not a single CVP customer has endorsed the plan, recoiling from a cost allocation plan imposed on CVP agencies by the federal government, leaving a potential funding gap of about $6 billion.

Santa Clara board member Richard Santos suggested a second tunnel could be built later. “Why don’t we try one? If we show it works, that builds confidence,” he said.

Santa Clara officials said they were wary of the costs of the project as proposed by the governor.

“We didn’t want to give them a blank check,” said board member Barbara Keegan.

Santa Clara’s vote left the project’s future as muddled as ever. Brown met with some district board members informally last week at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, at a meeting brokered by Silicon Valley’s business community, to urge them to support his project.

His administration was hoping for a “yes” vote from Santa Clara because it’s a major Northern California agency that serves 1.9 million customers in Silicon Valley. Most of the agencies that would pull water from the tunnels are located in the San Joaquin Valley and urban Southern California.

Support from Santa Clara – a relatively small player in state water politics – is extremely important to Brown, said water expert Jeffrey Mount of the Public Policy Institute of California.

“It’s countering the notion of a water grab, a Southern California water grab,” Mount said. “That’s why it’s important beyond the percentage of the water they get from it.”

Santa Clara draws water from the Delta through both the State Water Project and the federal Central Valley Project, but voted only to consider funding its state share of the tunnels. That’s about 1.4 percent of the total cost of the project.

While many environmentalists are opposed to the current tunnels plan, they’re more receptive to drilling a single tunnel under the estuary. The Natural Resources Defense Council in San Francisco proposed a one-tunnel water system in 2013

Doug Obegi, a senior attorney with the San Francisco environmentalist group, said his organization supports the concept of a single tunnel – as long as it means less water was being pumped from the Delta.

“We are open to new conveyance, but it has to operated correctly and in an environmentally protective manner,” he said. “That’s the big question. It’s not clear what the contractors would be proposing.”

Scientists say decades of pumping Northern California’s water through the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to south state agencies has significantly contributed to the decline in the estuary’s fragile ecosystem.

To protect species of nearly extinct fish, pumping often gets throttled back, allowing water that would otherwise be pumped to wash out to the ocean. The Brown administration says that by rerouting how water flows to the massive pumps through the tunnels, it would protect fish and enable pumping to proceed more reliably.

Many environmentalists, Delta farmers and others say the WaterFix project would bring even more harm to the Delta.

Dale Kasler: 916-321-1066, @dakasler

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