RADIO SHOW: Uncertain Future for $17 Billion Delta Tunnels Project After Water Districts Pull Support

Secretary John Laird and journalist Paul Rogers discuss the project

Last week, KQED's Forum radio show, hosted by Michael Krasny, discussed the California Water Fix project.  Secretary John Laird and Paul Rogers from the San Jose Mercury News were the guests.  Here's what they had to say.

“Governor Jerry Brown's $17 billion plan to construct two massive tunnels beneath the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta fell further into doubt last week as the Santa Clara Valley Water District rejected the plan in favor of a smaller, less costly, one tunnel project,”  began Michael Krasny.  “That vote followed a rejection of the plan last month by the Central Valley's Westlands Water District. But backers of the project, officially known as The California Water Fix, say it's needed to stabilize and improve water delivery across the state.  We're going to discuss the status and future of the project, and joining me first is John Laird, Secretary of the California Natural Resources Agency. Secretary Laird, good to have you on Forum, welcome.”

“Thanks for having me,” said Secretary Laird.

“Let's go right to the future of the tunnels,” said Michael Krasny.  “The administration's next move and when will we hear about that now that all the water districts have weighed in, and some are endorsing, and some haven't.  Some clearly want a smaller project.”

“Basically, the project is in two parts – it's the state part and the federal part,” said Secretary Laird.  “On the state part, water districts voted to come in 84% of who was looking at it, and the difference between 84 and 100 is actually the Kern County Water District that didn't come in for the full amount at the present time. The confusion is that the Westlands Water District, that voted not to come in, is entirely on federal water and would be involved in any federal part of the project.  So, really, right now, everybody on the state side voted to come in, one not at the full level, and so what we're really doing is we're going to take a look now, in partnership with those agencies, at where to go with the project that matches what people said when they voted to come in.”

“But you have, for example, Senator Feinstein saying that maybe we don't need two tunnels, you have Los Angeles mayor Gil Garcetti talking about one tunnel,” said Mr. Krasny.  “A lot of money has essentially been voted down, so the cost of this really remains a major obstacle, doesn't it?”

“No, the money hasn't been voted down, they really voted to come in with the money at the state level,” said Secretary Laird.  “There was a slight misnomer in one of the articles yesterday because it sort of implied starting from scratch and, basically, we did this extensive environmental work that was nine alternatives, and nine sub alternatives, and a variety of physical configurations and flows. So the real question is, with who voted to come in and at what level, how do we look at all those alternatives, and sub alternatives, and land on a project that matches it.”

“Forgive me Secretary Laird, you've only got commitments for about a third of the project cost,” countered Mr. Krasny. “How do you build without two thirds of the money? And let me add to that if I may, the fact that, as we've seen in these kind of projects, even if it can go ahead (Bay Bridge comes to mind), they get costlier as you move along.  In fact there's already some strange inflations – I say strange, I mean dramatic, really, in terms of cost.”

“Two things,” said Secretary Laird.  “One is that you do build a project that matches the money that people have committed, and secondly, we're really working with the water districts because there's already a 30% reserve built in to the project.  We’re working with them on the kind of overview that gives them a comfort level that there's some measure of control, and some measure of keeping it close to the original cost. This is just not what happened between the beginning of the Bay Bridge and the end of it 'cause that was exponential. This just will not be that.”

“Can you actually guarantee that the tunnels will allow more water to be pumped from the delta than is pumped now?” asked Mr. Krasny.

“The more water is a slightly inflammatory question,” responded Secretary Laird.  “What it really is, is it pumps the existing amount of water, subject to having enough flows to keep the salt in the bay, and having enough flows to meet biological studies with regard to fish. The one thing that is the difference is that, right now, the way the Delta is configured with pumps, near Tracy, at the south part of the Delta, as the thing that takes water in, is it reverses flows in certain streams, it draws fish into places they're not supposed to be in the Delta and where they have to be trucked back.”

“But the key thing is it is not organized in a way to take the excess flows after the biggest storms,” continued Secretary Laird.  “You can't do that by just sucking from the south of the Delta.  So you would have a configuration under the proposed project, that when there are big flows after storms, and you've already released what you need for salt and fish, and already taken what you need for the water contracts, you could take the additional pulse flows and storms for dry years.  The one example is in January and February of 2016, when we were still in the last year of the drought, there were those couple of huge storms.  We could have taken between 460 and 480 thousand acre-feet of water and stored it for dry years under the proposed project that you couldn't do in the current configuration.  So I think the real way of looking at it is it's the current use of water, based on the current biological opinions, and any extra water is only from peak flows after big storms under the project.”

“You can't do what needs to be done with drip irrigation and water recycling, or conservation's not enough?” asked Mr. Krasny.

“It's not enough,” said Secretary Laird.  “The thing about it is that we support all that. In the water bond we did money that already has had something like $800 million out the door for loans for recycling plants. But if you look at Santa Clara County, the one you referenced that voted, they import 55% of their water, after doing one of the best programs of capturing local water off the Delta, with dams and ground water storage, and percolation through ground water ponds, above … ponds, and if they added a 115 recycling plants it would only offset 10% of that imported water.  So, yes we want recycling plants, and yes we want more conservation, and yes we want storm water capture. But when the Delta is in danger, on both an environmental level and a water level, we have to do something that makes that sustainable and keeps that from going downhill.”

Michael Krasny asked, “Can I get you, simply, to talk about whether this project is going to shrink, and what the administration is going to do next? If you move into another category, it means redoing environmental impact reports and redoing engineering plans, and there's a lot at stake here, I realize, but is it going to move in the direction of shrinking?”

“That's quite a possibility if there's less money than what would have covered the total cost,” said Secretary Laird.  “The question is, within all the existing alternatives that have been examined, and all the existing environmental work, and all the existing engineering work, we can find an alternative that matches that money and minimalizes having to redo all the work. That's where, now, after every of the ten agencies has voted to come in at some level for a state project, we will work with them in partnership to try to see where we actually land, and I think those conversations will start in the next few weeks.”

“Again, Secretary John Laird is Secretary of The California Natural Resources Agency, he joined us from Sacramento,” said Michael Krasny.  “Thank you so much for being with us.”

“Thank you,” said Secretary Laird.

Michael Krasny then brought on the next guest, Paul Rogers, managing editor of KQED Science Unit and environment writer for the Mercury News.

“Let's get right to it,” said Michael Krasny.  “Will one suffice? Some say two is just a redundancy in the case of one failing. Let's go to the likelihood of what it’s going to be.  At least in the future with respect to two tunnels, it seems like it's moving more toward one tunnel.”

“I think Secretary Laird offered some clues there in his remarks,” answered Paul Rogers.  “The project as Jerry Brown envisioned it is two tunnels, 40 feet high each, 35 miles long, carrying 9000 cubic feet per second of water is in big trouble.  As you pointed out it's a $17 billion project;  they only have commitments for about five or six billion, and although agencies like the Santa Clara Valley Water District have said ‘Yeah, we want to keep talking about it’, they haven't committed any money.”

“So, as Secretary Laird said, you can only really build the project based on the amount of money you have,” continued Paul Rogers.  “So at this point, the governor has about four options.  I would say this is the biggest water battle in California in at least a generation.  The people who support it say it's a way to armor the delta, which is a key part of the state's water supply, against earthquakes. It's also a way to reduce reliance on the giant pumps at Tracy that pump water south. Opponents say if you build these giant tunnels forty feet high, it doesn't really matter what promises you make today, eventually people in LA and in the Central Valley will want to take more water from the north.  So, given all that … “

“Opponents also say that will to harm the Delta’s environment,” interjected Michael Krasny.  “Environmentalists have been certainly strong or strident about that.”

“They do, and part of that is by taking more fresh water out of the Delta, although, as Secretary Laird pointed out, the Brown administration's proposal right now is to take the same amount of water,” said Paul Rogers.  “Ironically, that's causing problems with some farmers who are saying ‘Why are we paying all this money if it's the same amount of water?’, and the Brown administration says ‘Well, you get more reliability.’”

“But, going forward, the reality is they don't have the money to pay for it,” continued Paul Rogers.  “So, first, Brown could drop the whole thing; I don't think that's likely. Second, he could continue to push for this two tunnel, 9000 cubic feet per second project, and try to find other ways to pay for it, like having the Trump administration or maybe Metropolitan Water District in Southern California pay the whole bill, I think that's unlikely also. Third, and we heard clues of that just now, he could come back with a smaller project. Maybe one tunnel, maybe two tunnels that are much smaller … “

“Excuse me Paul, for interrupting you, but wasn't there a project put forth a number of years ago, by the NRDC, along those lines of a one tunnel?,” asked Michael Krasny.

“Indeed there was, in 2013,” said Paul Rogers.  “Instead of 9000 cubic feet per second, it was 3000 cubic feet per second, one tunnel. It was endorsed by NRDC, a big environmental group. It was also supported by other water agencies, like San Diego, which is not a supporter of the governor's plan. It was endorsed, well, at least supported, by people like Contra Costa Water District and East Bay Municipal Water District … “

“I'm sorry I interrupted you,” said Michael Krasny.  “There was a fourth option that you were going to put on the table.

“Just finishing on the third, I think he could come back with a smaller project,” said Paul Rogers.  “If he does, though, as you pointed out, they may have to redo the environmental documents, so their going to try to find a project that fits in to what the existing environmental documents have, because Governor Brown's only in office for 14 more months.  And finally, the fourth one is they could come back with a smaller project and then say, ‘it's just phase one of a larger effort, and, eventually, we're going to get to two tunnels,’ and I think if they did that, the same groups who are opposing it right now would continue to oppose it.”

“We should add there are about 20 lawsuits against this project,” said Michael Krasny.  “There's a state audit which questions the financial viability which we don't need to necessarily go into that because I want to hear what our listeners have to say, but can you comment on those two facts, which also have to be seen in the whole equation here, Paul?”

“Those things did not help the project as it was coming up for these key votes,” said Paul Rogers.  “The state auditor, Elaine Howle, issued a report a couple of weeks ago that said that the project ‘has not completed either an economic or financial analysis to demonstrate its financial viability’.  So that's a big issue for a project that would be one of the largest public works projects ever built in California.”

“The other issue, as you mentioned, is that a lot of the big political leaders in the state have not embraced this with open arms,” continued Paul Rogers.  “Senator Feinstein, in an interview in the LA Times a couple of weeks ago said, ‘You know, I don't understand why we need two tunnels.’  Mayor Eric Garcetti in Los Angeles said he supports one tunnel. So I think that's where this is generally going, and the big question, at this point, is Governor Brown going to be satisfied with one tunnel that's smaller, or is he going to say ‘Yeah, it's one tunnel, but then we're going to phase in another one later.’”

“Let me go to our callers,” said Michael Krasny.  “Let me begin with a caller who's joining us from Antioch.  Ron, welcome, you're on the air.”

Ron from Antioch asks, “My question is, the Delta is not an island, it's connected to the San Francisco Bay, and the Sacramento River, which are salt water. The Delta is fresh water, so siphoning off massive amounts of fresh water from the Delta, isn't that going to bring in salt water and encroach into the delta itself, creating major havoc and environmental problems?”

“We already take 50% on average of the fresh water out that flows into the Delta,” answered Paul Rogers.  “Think about all the big rivers that flow through the Sierra Nevada, the places that people like to go white water rafting on. Those are the melting snows from the Sierra, and that's beautiful clear, crystal clear, fresh water, and it all flows down into the San Joaquin River and the Sacramento River.  Those two rivers meet at the Delta, and then the Delta flows out through San Francisco Bay.”

“The Delta is the linchpin of California's water system,” continued Paul Rogers.  “It provides water for about 24 million people and for 2 or 3 million acres of farmland, so that's really what a lot of the fight boils down to.  Environmental groups and people who live in the Delta want less water pumped out than is now already being pumped out.  They fear that with this project, even though the promises are we won't take anymore, that, you know, why would you build a ten lane freeway and only drive on two lanes?”

“Let me sort of outline with you, Paul, the arguments we hear from both sides,” said Michael Krasny.  “The arguments against the tunnels, and a lot of them coming from environmentalists, say that it will drive up the water cost and it will also benefit, mainly, San Joaquin Valley agribusiness. But then you hear from those in favor of the tunnels that it's necessary for the health of the whole ecosystem.”

“The two key arguments that they have that I think resonate best in terms of supporters is that we have a lot of earthquakes in Northern California, and if we had a major earthquake that broke up the earth and levies around the Delta, what could happen is a lot of the salt water from San Francisco Bay could be drawn in near these giant pumps at Tracy, and it could contaminate the water system with too much salt water, which would take months, if not years, to fix,” said Paul Rogers.  “So the argument is that if you build tunnels under the Delta, then you armor the whole thing better against earthquakes.”

“The other argument they make is that when the pumps were first built, the State Water Project and the Central Valley Project decades ago, we didn't have an Endangered Species Act yet,” continued Paul Rogers.  “So pumping all of this fresh water out of the delta has driven a lot of species to near extinction, including salmon, smelt and some other species. Because of various court rulings, you can't pump as much water at certain times of year, when these endangered fish are swimming by. The argument is that if we had the tunnels, we'd reduce reliance on the pumps.”

“I think we've got a caller who's right on point,” said Michael Krasny.  “Noah, join us, please, you're on the air.”

Mokelumne Aqueduct crossing the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. Photo by the California Department of Water Resources.“Thank you so much, Michael. My name is Noah Oppenheim, I am the executive director of The Pacific Coasts Federation of Fisherman's Associations, and also, my organization happens to be a party to one of the lawsuits that you mentioned in the slate of about 20, against these disastrous proposed tunnels.”

“Actually, I'd like to address a comment that your guest just made about the threats that this project would pose to endangered listed salmonid species,” Noah Oppenheim continued.  “I would strongly counter the notion that these tunnels would benefit these fish, and indeed, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's own biological assessment of the impacts that these tunnels would have to fish indicates that it would actually result in about 7% annual mortality per year on listed winter run Chinook Salmon.”

“Now, notwithstanding that for a second, of course, we need to contemplate the impacts that these tunnels would have to fishing jobs for commercial fisherman throughout the Bay Area, and the coast of California, who rely on non listed Salmon,” Noah Oppenheim said.  “We know that these tunnels would be run in a manner that would also impact hatch reproduction fish as they try to make their way through the delta.  We’ve already seen situations where there were over 90% mortality during the drought.  This would just simply exacerbate the problem. These are California's public trust resources and this is an administration that's seeking to diminish their value for the enjoyment of all, at the expense of the environment.  They are just a complete boondoggle.”

“Noah, thank you for the call,” said Michael Krasny.  “I'll go to more calls in just a moment but what's the alternative to the tunnels, Paul? I mean, we need water across the state, how do we do without the tunnels?”

“All this stuff gets really complicated,” said Paul Rogers.  “Water in California is unbelievably Byzantine, and the main issue that people need to think about is that California's a big state, and three quarters of the rain and snow fall in the north, and three quarters of the people are in the south. So for the past 75 years or so we've been trying to move water south for the people … where most people are, for the communities where most people are. When you look around at some cities in California, Los Angeles, Fresno, San Jose, they all get 15 inches of a rain a year on average, 15 inches. That's the same amount as Casablanca, Morocco.”

“So, without the world's largest system of dams and canals and pumps, and everything we've built in this state, we'd basically be Wyoming,” Paul Rogers continued.  “We'd be designing and making cow chips instead of silicon chips, and it would be very hard to have Hollywood. So these water systems are central to the state's economy.  The trouble is, all the things that we've built over the years have, in a lot of ways, wrecked the environment. So, what opponents of the tunnel say we need to do, is put in more regional solutions.  More water recycling, more storm water capture, some people say more desalination, although it's very expensive, more conservation, those kind of things. But some areas really still rely a lot on the Delta. I mean Los Angeles gets about a third of its water from the delta. As Secretary Laird mentioned, Santa Clara County, with two million people, gets about 40% of its water from the Delta.”

“I don't think it's all or nothing though,” added Paul Rogers.  “If you don't build the tunnels it's not like you get zero water from the Delta going forward. You still do but you may have to take less because of the pumping restrictions due to fish.”

“Let me read a comment,” said Michael Krasny.  “Since you're talking about a lot of the water going south, from Keith, who writes, ‘Rather than mess up what's left of our pristine waterways, to support an overpopulated non-caring city, I would suggest that Los Angeles builds underground cisterns below their parks, or wherever they deem necessary, as they do in Las Vegas. If they want to keep growing they should provide their own water.”

“Let me bring on more of our callers,” said Michael Krasny.  “Let me go next to Sacramento Valley. Welcome, Jim, you're on the air.”

“Thank you, my name is Jim Brobeck.  I'm a water policy analyst for Aqua Alliance, and I've got comments pertaining to impacts in the Sacramento Valley.  Listening to the conversation that you're having now, most of the water is going to export crops in the San Joaquin valley – up to 80% of the water being exported out of the Delta goes to export crops that are operated by about 600 farms. So we can reduce the amount of water taken out of the Delta, and still provide the water to our brothers and sisters in these urban areas, but we do need to retire some of this desert agriculture in the San Joaquin valley.”

“That being said, the issue in the Sacramento Valley is that there's an emerging water market that intends to employ groundwater substitution water transfers to fill these giant tunnels,” Jim Brobeck continued.  “This has not been reviewed in the Water Fix environmental documents, what the impacts to the groundwater and the hydrology of the Sacramento Valley that would be providing the water.  So this is a very important component.  The reason they want to build the tunnels is to get around the existing constraints that occur when you reverse the flows in the Delta that a previous caller talked about.”

“These so-called excess flows are required for the ecosystem that goes all the way out to the Gulf of the Farallones islands,” said Jim Brobek.  “So reducing the amount of the demand of the water would be a great solution. Right now we're taking about 6 million acre-feet, up to 7 million acre-feet a year out of the Delta. And if we reduce that to 3 million acre-feet that would be enough to supply water for the cities south of the Delta, and still provide some water for agriculture. But we need to retire some of this permanent agriculture that is being installed in the San Joaquin Valley and Kern County.”

“Jim, you're getting back to a point you made earlier,” interjected Michael Krasny.  “I thank you for the call, but I want to go to Paul Rogers on this. Again, we're talking about agribusiness taking a disproportionate amount of the water. Realistically, what can be done, or ought to be done about that, Paul?”

“This also goes back to what the caller beforehand mentioned,” said Paul Rogers.  “It's common in the Bay Area to say LA is taking all the water, that's actually not true. 80% of the water in California that goes to human needs is consumed by agriculture. Los Angeles only uses about 600,000 acre feet out of something like 35 million acre feet total that the state consumes for human use, so it's literally like 2%.”

“How does it stack up against other big cities or, for that matter, our region up here in the north?” asked Michael Krasny.

“They have more people so they use more water, but LA, just like San Jose and other big cities, is using less water now than it was thirty years ago even though the population has grown,” said Paul Rogers.  “All those low flush toilets make a difference, and just like we've seen with electricity, efficiency really works when you put it in.  In terms of the question about reducing the amount to ag, environmentalists, for many years, have talked about that, and what the caller just suggested would indeed help fish a lot in the Delta by cutting the exports by something like 40%. Politically, you've got a big problem, though. Who controls congress? Republicans. Who are the people that represent the Central Valley? Republicans. Even in the legislature you've got a lot of people, Democratic and Republican, who represent those areas – those areas don't have much more in terms of the economy.  So I'm not saying it's a good or a bad idea to do, it's just a very high political battle, to talk about a 40% reduction in water to Central Valley farms.”

“Paul Rogers, again, managing editor at KQED Science Unit, and environment writer for the Mercury News,” said Michael Krasny.  “Paul, good to have you with us on Forum.  Thank you.”

“Thank you,” said Paul Rogers.

Click here for the link to the KQED Forum show.

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One comment

  • How can the “Rulers” of this tunnel construction project be confident that cement tunnels won’t crack in an earthquake? When we lived in Morgan Hill in a lakefront home overlooking Anderson Reservoir, San Jose’s city water supply, even our cement driveways cracked in minor earthquakes. Even this article had the radio guests admitting the state’s approach to water delivery has “wrecked the environment”, so are we supposed to trust the same people to build a new system? The same agencies that built Oroville Dam and demonstrated how their “adaptive management” endangered thousands of lives in the near catastrophic crises?

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