The decades-long political struggle over fixing the bottleneck in California’s immense north-south water system is nearing a climax—and it’s not looking good for Gov. Jerry Brown’s long-sought solution.
The State Water Project, initiated nearly 60 years ago by Brown’s late father, Pat, impounds Feather River water behind Oroville Dam and sends it southward down the Feather and Sacramento rivers into the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. Huge pumps at the south edge of the Delta suck water into the California Aqueduct, which transports it as far south as San Diego.
However, the Delta has century-old levees that are deteriorating, and water draws from it have been curtailed due to the degradation of habitat for fish and other wildlife, leading to a search for solutions that would improve reliability of water supplies and improve habitat.
During his first gubernatorial incarnation, Jerry Brown won legislative approval of a “peripheral canal” to carry water around the Delta, only to see it rejected by voters just weeks before his governorship ended in 1983.
More than three decades later, with scarcely a year remaining in Brown’s second governorship, his successor plan—twin tunnels beneath the Delta—is teetering. It suffers from declining interest among the water agencies that would have to pay for it and an apparent unwillingness of the federal government to come to the rescue.
The uncertain future of WaterFix, as it’s officially dubbed, was framed in an October report by the state auditor’s office, which pointed out several managerial shortcomings and concluded that the Department of Water Resources has “not completed either an economic or financial analysis to demonstrate the financial viability of WaterFix.”
Tunnel opponents in the Legislature, organized as the “Delta Coalition,” smell blood and will stage a hearing in Walnut Grove, as small riverfront town in the Delta, this week to showcase the project’s shortcomings and contribute, they hope, to its demise.
As with all big public works, the key to WaterFix’s future is money. Its estimated cost approaches $17 billion, although—based on the state’s recent record of big projects—one should be skeptical.
Construction is supposed to be financed by the water agencies that depend on the state system, particularly the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, the Westlands Water District that supplies farmers on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley and the Santa Clara Valley Water District, which serves Silicon Valley.
Although MWD officially backs the project, its largest member agency, the San Diego County Water Authority, is highly critical, so continued backing in Southern California is not certain.
The Santa Clara agency voted recently to support WaterFix, but only after attaching conditions that could be fatal, such as suggesting the project be reduced to a single tunnel.
Most ominously, Westlands voted to not participate, and the U.S. Department of the Interior declared that it would not participate financially. The latter is important because Westlands had suggested that it might reconsider its opposition if farmers who get water from the federal Central Valley Project would pay a substantial share of the costs.
Brown and his water officials are trying to put a positive face on the situation. After Santa Clara’s half-hearted “approval,” Brown declared it “a major step forward for California WaterFix and ensures that Santa Clara will have the water it desperately needs.”
Truth is, WaterFix needs a fiscal fix, and soon, to still be alive when Brown departs 13 months hence.