The Two Tunnel Version of California WaterFix Finds A Funder

In what seems a miracle, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California has agreed to pay for most of the estimated $16.7 original cost of a major north-south water tunneling project in the state. Up until now it looked like Central California’s farmers would be stuck with the bill.

The project is known as the California WaterFix. Also known as the Delta Tunnels, it provides for building two water tunnels connecting the northern part of the state – where the Sacramento-San Joquin River Delta is – to the southern part of the state. It is one of the ways that a state plagued with drought is attempting to help distribute precious water resources, and by doing so to help save its farmers.

The project was also accelerated after parts of the spillway at Northern California’s Oroville Dam showed visible cracks. If those cracks had given way, a massive flood would have spread across a wide area in the region, causing widespread damage both to property and those living in the area.

The Calfornia WaterFix project has had a shaky history. It started with two tunnels until it appeared the full over $10 billion funding need might not be available to allow it to proceed anytime soon. The recommendation was then shifted to become a $5 billion project and only one tunnel. That went on for some time, and the Metropolitan Water District agreed to put up the $5 billion for that.

That all shifted during the week of April 2 when California Governor Jerry Brown threw his support behind the two-tunnel project. He also offered to help with some critical details. After hearing that and with some further negotiations, the Metropolitan Water District agreed to support a revised $10.8 billion plan for the two-tunnel project.

What comes with this is a tricky balancing act of how to handle all the costs involved. Part of the agreement that allowed this to happen provides for some rate increases to be passed on to ratepayers. Others feel the plan needs further work to make sure it is properly engineered from the beginning.

As Barbara Barrigan-Parilla, part of the Restore the Delta advocacy group which opposes the tunnels, said, the agreement basically allows spending for the project to grow to whatever it becomes, without a lot of controls. She complained that, “You’re essentially giving staff a blank check.”

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti also chipped in his concerns about the project in an editorial he wrote for the Los Angeles Daily News in March. There he said that, “…We cannot rely solely on 20th century engineering for our 21st century water needs — and projects like the Delta tunnels run the risk of siphoning off precious ratepayer dollars and endangering the fragile Delta ecosystem.”

For Governor Jerry Brown, however, this was the right solution coming at the time and right price. He said the solution “does the most to prepare for our future”, and that “This is a historic decision that is good for California – our people, our farms and our natural environment.”

When the project is complete, each tunnel would deliver as much as 6,000 cubic feet of water per second. It would make a major difference to water distribution problems around the state but diverting that much water that far can only have a negative environmental impact.

The next step is for the state to push through approval of the full project and get it started. Based on past efforts on the same project, that may not happen smoothly or even conclude with precisely the same final answer. But after considerable arguing back and forth, money talks – and the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California’s willingness to front the cost speaks quite loudly in the debate right now.

Trillions will continue to track this project and publish the many bid opportunities.