Op-Ed: The delta tunnels — a project only engineers can love


A generation ago the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta tunnel project might have made a certain kind of sense. California’s lakes and rivers had been so thoroughly replumbed by dams, drains, pumps, canals and aqueducts that the state already contained the world’s most engineered water system — so why not add one more megaproject to the labyrinth?

Water from the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers flows into the delta, where some of it is directed into pumps that send it south to farmers on the San Joaquin Valley’s west side and to municipal users in Southern California. The tunnel project, known as California WaterFix, is the latest rendition of proposals dating back to the 1940s to divert Sacramento River water south before it reaches the environmentally ravaged delta. The WaterFix calls for a pair of 35-mile-long, 40-foot-diameter tunnels to be installed as much as 150 feet below ground, starting at Clarksburg and leading to the state aqueduct near Tracy.

The tunnels’ planners hope to increase water deliveries south by avoiding the delta and restrictions meant in part to protect fish that get caught in the current pumping system. But as the project has evolved and the delta’s environmental distress has intensified, the tunnels’ cost has soared, the goal of environmental restoration has been all but abandoned, and support for the project has dwindled.


The Mercury News reported in December 2013 that ... including long-term financing, the project would cost between $51 billion and $67 billion.

Now WaterFix is in danger of becoming a project that only engineers — such as those at the state’s Department of Water Resources, the project’s biggest backer — can love.

One reason for the tunnels’ waning support is money. The state pegs the project’s cost at $17.1 billion, but there’s no detailed cost-benefit analysis to justify the number. That’s an unusual and disturbing omission, particularly since the Brown administration has already issued tens of thousands of pages of reports on the project. A likely reason for its absence is that the estimate isn’t credible. Most notably, the number doesn’t include financing costs, which, given the tunnels’ decade-long projected construction time and probable reliance on interest-bearing bonds, are expected to be enormous.

The Mercury News reported in December 2013 that a staff member of the wealthy Westlands Water District, which was an early project advocate, and a Citigroup bond consultant told the Westlands board that including long-term financing, the project would cost between $51 billion and $67 billion. The reporter checked the figures with Water Resources Director Mark Cowin, who “confirmed the estimates are accurate.”

On top of that, none of these estimates include potential cost overruns, which most tunnel projects of this scale incur. Bent Flyvbjerg, a professor at Oxford University’s Said Business School, reviewed 52 tunnel projects that cost at least a billion dollars and found that their average cost overrun was 33%. Even more worrisome, more than a quarter of the projects experienced overruns that at least doubled initial projections.

State officials maintain that the tunnels project will be paid for entirely by the water districts that benefit from it. That means, for example, that if the current low-ball estimate is accurate, ratepayers in the Southern California Metropolitan Water District — the most pro-tunnel district in the state — would pay an extra $5 a month forever to cover their portion of the project, according to the MWD.


But an unpublished UC Berkeley analysis commissioned by the state last year says the cost isn’t justified by the water the project will provide. To make it pencil out would require a subsidy of at least $5 billion — meaning that taxpayers would bear some of the cost after all. Even then, the tunnels would be beneficial only for urban districts like the MWD; rural districts such as Westlands would still lose money.

That may explain why when I asked Westlands for its position on the tunnels, it didn’t provide an answer.

The difference between MWD’s and Westlands’ outlook is instructive: MWD wants tunnels because it thinks taking water directly from the Sacramento instead of the delta means more “reliable” water — that is, water that isn’t disrupted by environmental restrictions, salinity controls and other factors that have reduced deliveries from the delta proper. Westlands, on the other hand, wants not just “reliable” water but more of it — it wants the volume of water diverted from the delta system to increase so it can distribute more water to its farmers’ huge tracts of almond and pistachio trees.

But extracting even more water from the system in any but the wettest years would deepen the delta’s environmental crisis and may not win approval from state environmental agencies, even if Trump administration-led federal bodies are supportive. As Peter Gleick, chief scientist of the Oakland-based Pacific Institute, explained in an email, “Unless the project results in more water being diverted from the delta, it will never be of value to the water users who most need it,” such as Westlands. “And if no more water is diverted from the delta, those water users will not pay for it.”

The imbalance of costs and benefits is only one reason to object to WaterFix. The tunnels represent a failure of imagination. The project looks backward, to an era when hard technology was installed across the state to transport water hundreds of miles, regardless of construction and energy costs and environmental impacts. A glaring example is the Edmondston Pumping Plant, the state’s largest single user of electricity, which lifts water from the state aqueduct 1,926 feet — the highest lift of any pumping plant in the world — over the Tehachapi Mountains and into Los Angeles. In the climate-change era, when reductions of fossil fuel emissions are imperative, more of the same makes no sense.


Even without the tunnels, the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta faces continuing decline. Freshwater diversions from it have caused toxic algae blooms that can sicken humans and the near-extinction of an increasing number of aquatic species. The tunnels would not only exacerbate the environmental crisis, they would divert funding and attention from other better, cheaper sources of water.

Los Angeles, Santa Monica and many other of the state’s communities are pioneers in 21st century “soft path” approaches that mimic or reinforce natural processes instead of trying to overcome them: storm water capture, wastewater recycling and plain old conservation. These strategies — not an absurdly expensive project that serves chiefly to perpetuate the existence of the bureaucracies that support it — would reduce pressure on the delta while showing the way to California’s water future.

Jacques Leslie is a former Los Angeles Times foreign correspondent and author of “Deep Water: The Epic Struggle Over Dams, Displaced People, and the Environment.”

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