By Nick Cahill, Courthouse News
SAN JOSE (CN) – The $17 billion “California WaterFix” project reached a tipping point Tuesday after a Silicon Valley water district voted against Gov. Jerry Brown’s approach in favor of a less expensive, scaled-back version.
The San Jose-based Santa Clara Valley Water District agreed to “conditionally support” California WaterFix – a plan to divert water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta through a pair of 40-foot-wide, 35-mile-long tunnels – but said the state will have to consider cheaper alternatives before the district can commit hundreds of millions to the water project.
“It’s clearly going to be a smaller project than what was originally proposed,” said board member Gary Kremen.
Under the current plan, local water suppliers would pay for most of the estimated $17 billion project, passing the cost on to ratepayers. Santa Clara board members said they are wary of the potential for cost overruns with a project that could take more than 10 years to complete.
Brown met with some board members and Silicon Valley business advocates last week in an attempt to drum up support for the contentious plan, and also called the water board’s chairman Monday night.
Yet board members remain skeptical of the two-tunnel approach and the financial risks associated with the project. In the end, the water district said it would prefer a one-tunnel solution.
“I’m open to negotiating, I’m not open to a blank checkbook,” board member Dick Santos said.
Support for the plan championed by Brown is suddenly wavering. A pair of audits questioned the plan’s financial viability and last month the state’s largest irrigation district pulled out of the effort to replumb the West Coast’s largest estuary.
The recent setbacks are forcing the state to consider a smaller approach.
Santa Clara Valley Water District chairman John Varela said Tuesday that Brown’s administration is “open to the idea of a single tunnel.” Varela said he has talked with both Brown and Natural Resources secretary John Laird about the “scope” of the project.
Nonetheless, Brown and Laird painted the water district’s vote as a win for the Delta Tunnels and said they are not throwing in the towel on the decades-old project mired in the planning stage.
“The board’s vote today is a major step forward for California WaterFix and ensures that Santa Clara will have the water it desperately needs,” Brown said in a statement.
Laird said the unanimous vote “adds to the momentum we’ve seen in the last two weeks as local agencies around the state have seen the value of WaterFix and formally voted to participate in the project.”
Environmentalists have tagged the WaterFix as a “boondoggle” and an existential threat to the delta’s ecosystem. They warn that diverting freshwater flows from the delta will degrade water quality to the detriment of endangered salmon and other fish species.
“These contradictory views of Santa Clara Valley’s vote reveal the deep disarray that this project is in,” said Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla, Restore the Delta executive director. “Gov. Brown wants to sell the vote as a win. Yet, Santa Clara’s support is for something other than California WaterFix.”
The project, while still in the planning stages, has been approved by state and federal fisheries agencies and construction could begin as soon as 2018.
Supporters say the project is necessary to renovate the state’s water infrastructure and protect the delta’s levees from earthquakes and climate change. Brown notes the plan has been subjected to more environmental review than “any other project in the world” and is critical to California’s future water supply.
The state is also fighting a series of lawsuits filed this summer by environmental groups and Northern California municipalities opposed to the project. The petitioners want the courts to throw out the state’s environmental certification and halt one of the largest public works projects in state history.