Proposed single delta tunnel could cost $15.9 billion

August 21, 2020
by Lois Henry
Lois Henry

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A single tunnel proposed to take water under the sensitive Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and deliver it to farms and cities in the south could cost $15.9 billion, give or take, according to an initial assessment discussed at the Delta Conveyance Authority meeting on Thursday.

This is a scaled down version of a proposal under Gov. Jerry Brown’s administration for two tunnels. Brown’s so-called “twin tunnels” would have had a combined capacity to move water at a maximum 9,000 cubic feet per second (CFS) and were expected to cost $17 billion.

The current proposed single tunnel is envsioned to carry a maximum 6,000 CFS.

Delta Conveyance and Department of Water Resources staff stressed Thursday these numbers are extremely preliminary. Environmental reviews are still under way and an alternative —  including the possibility of no project at all — has yet to be chosen.

Environmental work will go into 2022 and permitting will likely take even longer.

That’s all true, which makes $15.9 billion a very low-ball number, according to Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla, Executive Director of Restore the Delta, which adamantly opposes the tunnel project.

“The project will see inflation of 5% annually which is then easily a $25 billion project,” Barrigan-Parrilla wrote in an email. “Most importantly, $400 million for mitigation is an insult.”

She referred to the amount set aside in the Delta Conveyance Authority’s assessment that will be needed to pay for disturbed habitat, water quality degradation and other possible negative consequences of the project.

Cities and water districts that will foot the bill for the proposed project, meanwhile, took Thursday’s numbers in stride.

Yes, at face value, the new, single tunnel will deliver 35% less water for 93% of the cost of the original project.

“But this is preliminary cost estimates on a very different project,” said Jefffrey Kightlinger, General Manager of Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, the State Water Project’s biggest customer.

Besides, the $17 billion estimate for the old twin tunnels was 2017 dollars.

“It’s not apples to apples.”

In 2018, MWD pledged to pay $11 billion for the old twin tunnels project after several agricultural water districts bowed out completely, or promised only partial support – including Westlands Water District and the Kern County Water Agency, respectively.

That’s all off the table now, as the project has changed.

Kightlinger said his staff would take a hard look at the new project as it progresses, but if it pencils out similar to the old project, he expected his board would support it.

This time around, Westlands isn’t participating, he said. But other ag districts, including the Kern County Water Agency, are still weighing their options.

How important will they be to the funding mix?

“That depends on how many are in and how many are out,” Kightlinger said. “I expect there will be an appetite to stay with the project among the rest of the State Water Project contractors for the portion that steps out.”

The State Water Contractor’s association noted the importance of the project without commenting on the specific dollar figures laid out Thursday.

“The Delta Conveyance Project is necessary to protect the long-term viability of the State Water Project, California’s foundational source of affordable, high-quality water,” Jennifer Pierre, General manager of the State Water Contractors, said in a prepared statement.

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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