Funding for the proposed delta tunnel could be slipping

December 2, 2020
by Lois Henry
Lois Henry

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The Metropolitan Water District likely won’t pick up the slack to cover planning costs for the proposed Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta tunnel

That’s a huge shift from MWD’s “all in” support of the previous tunnel project.

And MWD’s pull back could create a ripple of iffyness among other State Water Contractors about how much of their own money they want to invest down the line without the giant southern California water purveyor in its usual position as a financial backstop.

This is just the planning phase for the proposed tunnel, known as the Delta Conveyance Facility.

Planning and environmental review is expected to cost $340 million over the next four years, according to the Department of Water Resources.

Construction could be as much as $16 billion.

It remains to be seen how the MWD board will vote next week on this first call for funding.

The staff recommendation for MWD’s share of planning costs went down from $75 million to $58 million, according to a staff report prepared for the board’s Dec. 8 meeting.

That would leave the state $30 million short, but MWD General Manager Jeffrey Kightlinger said he was assured the state would backfill that money.

That rankled tunnel opponents.

It isn’t fair for DWR to front millions of dollars on a project that not even State Water Contractors are willing to fully fund, according to Barbara Barrigan-Parilla, a member of the executive committee of Restore the Delta.

“New conveyance is to be paid for by the water contractors,” she wrote in an email.

DWR Director Karla Nemeth stressed that any shortfall in planning funds for the Delta Conveyance would come out of contingency funds paid by the State Water Contractors, not from public money.

Though MWD’s move was unexpected, it doesn’t mean the project is on shaky ground, Kightlinger said.

“The good news is, Kern (the Kern County Water Agency), picked up more than was expected,” Kightlinger said. “And we’re still funding a larger share than anyone else.”

He said some of MWD’s member agencies were “squeamish” about MWD subsidizing other water agencies. And that he was starting to get “push back.”

In the interest of giving his board a more palatable option, he recommended chipping in a smaller amount for this phase of the project.

Getting a solid yes vote from MWD’s board on a reduced share for tunnel planning would be “a positive signal for the future viability of this project,” he said.

When asked if his slimmed down funding recommendation would carry over into future phases of the tunnel, he said that would be decided at the time.

“If and when it comes to construction, we’ll talk then.”

DWR  Director Nemeth was encouraged by all the State Water Contractor votes on this phase of the project.

“The important thing about Gov. Newsom’s approach to this, was to come to the table with a project that was permittable but also affordable to the water users who want to pay for it,” she said. “So, it’s good for me to get an accurate picture of where these boards are and how comfortable they are with their level of investment given what we do know and what we don’t know about the project is at this point and time.”

Kern water districts voted Nov. 18 to chip in $14 million over the next two years toward the planning costs.

“It’s great that Kern took a vote. That didn’t happen with the previous project,” Nemeth said. “We are 85 to 90 percent subscribed for a 6,000-cfs project. That’s a good place to be and I think we’re on a really productive path.”

Kern County Water Agency General Manager Tom McCarthy was still waiting to hear from three of its member water districts on how much, or whether, they would chip in for the Delta Conveyance Planning.

“Our plan is to get back together with all the participating agencies, MWD being one, and see where we are in funding and if there are gaps and whether we need to settle up,” McCarthy said.

Asked whether MWD’s recommended funding reduction might affect future funding considerations, McCarthy said he could only wait and see.

Previously, Gov. Jerry Brown had proposed two tunnels to bring water from the Sacramento River beneath the delta.

Kern water districts paid $13 million over 10 years to study that proposal.

Anticipated construction costs were about $15 billion. In 2017, Kern districts pledged about $1 billion to construction and MWD vowed to finance most of the rest up to $11 billion.

The twin tunnels were scrapped by Gov. Newsom in favor of a smaller, single tunnel.

SJV Water is an independent, nonprofit news site dedicated to covering water in the San Joaquin Valley. Get inside access to SJV Water by becoming a member.

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