L.A.’s mammoth water district voted Tuesday to rescue the twin tunnels from oblivion. Which could mean condemning the San Joaquin Delta and our regional economy.
So, are these damn tunnels going to get built? Realistically, what permitting and legal hurdles stand in the way? And what is the Metropolitan Water Board of Southern California thinking to pony up almost $11 billion for this dubious project?
“I’ve been trolled all day by the vice mayor of Beverly Hills,” Barbara Barrigan-Parilla of Restore the Delta said. “They think this is a big victory.”
It is a big victory — for the sort of dam-building mentality championed by California’s old guard.
Before we get into this monster’s prospects, a reminder why most sane Northern Californians oppose it. It will take fresh water and leave the Delta with saltier, dirtier water. That will hurt Stockton’s $221 million waterworks, which draws water from the Delta to your tap, and, in turn, impact our groundwater supplies. It will diminish, possibly to extinction, Delta fisheries, and tear a big chunk out of Delta agriculture. Ag being San Joaquin County’s number one economic driver.
The MWD may have resurrected the concrete Lazarus, but for how long is another matter. The project faces a welter of permitting, legal, economic and political challenges.
Permitting: Right now, the State Water Board is holding pivotal hearings on the Department of Water Resources’ request to stick three giant straws into the Delta up by Sacramento. These intakes would suck water into the tunnels.
Board members are Gov. Brown’s appointees. Don’t look for them to kill the project. But, unless they’re utter hacks, they surely will impose conditions on it.
Conditions could range from greatly reduced water diversions to bolster the ailing Delta’s health, to requiring MWD to invest in local and regional water projects. Such conditions could cause MWD to reconsider.
Legal: This deal is lawyer heaven. Already 20 or so environmental lawsuits, consolidated into one case, are in Sacramento court. And there are other suits. They may not be decided until 2019 or so.
Expect more suits over the State Water Board’s conditions.
Then expect another five- to eight-year slog of appeals.
Another likely legal attack involves Propositions 218 and 26. These prohibit government from raising taxes without a two-thirds vote. Fees must be scaled to the public benefits and used solely on the program they are supposed to fund.
But MWD just shouldered the lion’s share of the cost of a statewide water project that also greatly benefits south-Valley Ag. As their rates go up, expect Southland ratepayers to dial their lawyers.
Economic: Cost overruns on major California capital projects … well, the 1995 estimate of the Bay Bridge seismic retrofit was $250 million; the 2013 cost was $6.5 billion.
Overruns could cause MWD member agencies to yank the cord to stop the crazy train and opt instead for modern, sustainable measures such as conservation, recycling and storm water capture.
“I think Met will have a very hard time having Southern California pay for two-thirds while not getting additional water supply,” said Doug Obegi of the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Unfortunately, MWD has a fiscal impetus, too. With its Tuesday vote, it changed its business model. Now it plans to wholesale water to Big Ag and others to recoup its upfront costs. This will give it an even more powerful incentive to suck Delta water.
In other words, the stereotypical bigwig SoCal water conniver like Jack Nicholson fought in “Chinatown” is no longer just some avaricious tycoon (though they still abound) but the MWD itself. For the Delta, this could be a whole ’nuther level of bad.
Political: The real interesting politics are between the MWD’s member agencies.
Its two biggest, Los Angeles and San Diego, opposed paying for the tunnels. So did Santa Monica and San Fernando. “And that historic split will play out in the future,” Barrigan-Parilla said.
Obegi noted tension between the legal and political forces affecting the Delta.
“I think there’s a real challenge between the biological science — that says we need more water flowing through the estuary — and the political science,” he said. “The real concern is that the Trump administration or Gov. Brown will put their thumbs on the scale in favor of the exporters over the environment.”
Then there’s us. A region abstract to Southland residents. We have a right to defend our economy, our natural and cultural heritage. To stand up for the ancient principle that rivers, and by extension estuaries, belong to everyone. Even in California.
Contact columnist Michael Fitzgerald at (209) 546-8270 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him at recordnet.com/fitzgeraldblog and on Twitter @Stocktonopolis.