Pricey tunnel sparks talk of water sales

November 11, 2020
by Lois Henry
Lois Henry

A lot to learn

How exactly will the proposed Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta tunnel, known as the Delta Conveyance, operate?

How much water will it bring to farms and cities south of the delta? Will it increase State Water Project reliability? If so, by how much? In wet years, will the tunnel allow greater access to excess water?

“We don’t have answers to a lot of those questions yet,” said Jason Gianquinto, General Manager of Semitropic Water Storage District. “It’s all very speculative right now.

Even with so much up in the air, Semitropic and water agencies up and down the state, are being asked to pony up a share of $340 million for Department of Water Resources to begin the planning and study phase of the Delta Conveyance.

Gianquinto said Semitropic will likely invest between $300,000 and $500,000 a year for the next two years and then reassess with information at that time.

“We all still have a lot to learn on what this new project is.”

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Getting water through a tunnel under  the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta would be pricey.

So pricey, some Kern County water districts were looking for an “off-ramp” by potentially selling their main state water supply out of the county.

The request was shot down at a special meeting on Nov. 6 by the Kern County Water Agency, which holds the contract for state water on behalf of 13 area water districts.

That denial could jeopardize funding from Kern water districts for the proposed tunnel, known as the Delta Conveyance.

“Table A (the main supply) is the basis that props up everything for water in Kern county,” said Agency Chair Royce Fast. “To give blanket approval to move, or transfer, that water out of Kern County is a serious question.”

The question came from three water districts on Kern’s west side — Belridge Water Storage District and Lost Hills and Berrenda Mesa water districts.

Combined, those agencies contract for about one third of Kern’s total State Water Project supply of 982,730 acre feet.

Phil Nixon, who manages those westside agencies, explained that allowing the transfer or sale of Table A water would give his landowners flexibility.

“We’ve had tough times in the past on the west side,” Nixon said.

He said the Delta Conveyance is anticipated to bring more water into Kern. Allowing landowners to sell an equivalent amount of Table A water, if needed, would not create a “net loss of water to the county.”

But it would help landowners if “things went awry down the road.”

“If a landowner got into trouble, they would move Delta Conveyance water first. If they couldn’t do that, they would like to look at moving an equivalent amount of Table A to get out of trouble,” Nixon said.

Without that ability, Nixon said, westside landowners might not be willing to chip in as much money for the Delta Conveyance project. The Wonderful Company is one of the largest landowners in the Belridge, Berrenda Mesa and Lost Hills districts.

Board member Ted Page wasn’t buying Nixon’s explanation.

“You would have the ability to sell or transfer your Delta Conveyance supply,” Page told Nixon. “Why do you need another supply to transfer? You haven’t given me any reason for why or how this works to anyone’s advantage. Not for the farming people of Kern County.

The issue was raised as the agency is setting policies for how water from the proposed Delta Conveyance would be allowed to be sold and traded by participating water districts.

Policies on Delta Conveyance water were needed before the agency’s Nov. 19 meeting where it is expected the board will determine Kern’s overall participation level and how much its member districts will pay toward the initial phase of the project.

The Department of Water Resources is asking for $340 million over the next four years to cover preliminary study and environmental work on the project.

Total anticipated cost is about $16 billion, according to an early assessment by DWR staff back in August.

But those costs are still very preliminary as environmental work isn’t completed and a specific project has yet to be decided on.

Even so, the costs were too high and the amount of water too uncertain for at least two Kern water districts. The Henry Miller and Kern Delta water districts opted out of paying any more money toward the tunnel project.

Kern state water contractors have already paid $13 million over the last 10 years toward studies, environmental review and permitting for the original proposed twin tunnel project under Gov. Jerry Brown’s administration.

Gov. Gavin Newsom scrapped that plan in early 2019 and started over with a single tunnel proposal.

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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