Tom Stokely in the Redding Record Searchlight: Tunnels Are Rotten Deal For North State
Tom Stokely: Tunnels are rotten deal for north state
Gov. Jerry Brown was confounded by California voters in 1982, when they rejected plans for the Peripheral Canal — a massive conveyance system that would’ve shunted Sacramento River water around the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to south state cities and San Joaquin Valley megafarms.
Clearly, California’s citizens had more sense than the politicians pushing this economic and environmental nightmare. It would’ve saddled the state with ruinous debt and devastated the Delta and its fisheries. Nor would it have increased water deliveries to Southern California; it was, after all, nothing more than a conveyance system. The amount of water available for export would’ve remained the same. Now — to quote Yogi Berra — it’s déjà vu all over again. Brown is back for another term, and so is the peripheral canal. Except this time, it’s the Twin Tunnels — a dual set of subterranean pipes situated under the Delta. Don’t be fooled, though: This “new” water export idea is just as bad as the one that preceded it.
For starters, it will drain Californians’ wallets as efficiently as it does the Sacramento River. Figures on construction costs vary, but it is clear it could top $60 billion before the dust settles and all debt is fully retired. The money will come from state revenue bonds and general obligation bonds, and from federal appropriations.
For every billion dollars the state borrows, it will have to pay $64 million annually over a period of 30 years. That is money that would otherwise be used for pressing needs such as schools, roads, public safety, and county and city services.
The tunnels also pose a tremendous liability for rank-and-file citizens. If south state water agencies are unable to pay back the debt, the default will be borne not only by their ratepayers — California taxpayers in general will have to pony up.
And who benefits? Certainly, no one in Northern California. Make no mistake: This is a water grab pure and simple, as close to a zero-sum game as you can get. The real winners in this scam are a few hundred corporate farms in the western and southern San Joaquin Valley. They will not only lock up millions of acre-feet of highly subsidized water from the Sacramento and Trinity rivers — they will use it in some cases to grow price-supported crops.
Moreover, the Twin Tunnels will be used to implement an ambitious groundwater transfer program to the south state. These water transfers will not only come at the expense of the Sacramento and Trinity rivers — our own groundwater reserves will also be pillaged. Particularly threatened is the Tuscan aquifer, which underlies the Sacramento Valley and sustains the city of Chico and its surrounding agricultural lands.
The Tuscan aquifer already is threatened by groundwater transfers, and the Twin Tunnels will only hasten its depletion. Our cities, farms, fisheries, wildlife reserves and duck clubs will face the dire threat of water shortages — just to maximize the take of the Westlands Water District, the Kern County Water Agency and the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California.
And the energy used to pump the water will also be robbed from Peter (Northern California) to pay Paul (the western San Joaquin). Delta pumping gets priority for the hydropower generated by Shasta and Trinity dams, and it receives it at greatly discounted rates. Meanwhile, the city of Redding gets what’s left over for its electricity, and it faces the risk of reduced power supplies if the turbines ever slow due to diminished water supplies — a very real risk in this era of climate change.
Adding the insult of accounting sleight-of-hand to the stark injury of resource seizure, the water masters of the south state aim to further slash their liability by assigning much of the tunnels’ cost to “public benefits” such as fish and wildlife. They claim that the tunnels will improve fish passage through the Delta, and that planned restoration projects will greatly expand habitat. This will make it possible to stick the state and federal treasuries — and the taxpayers that support them — with most of the bill.
Don’t believe the hype about fisheries and habitat improvement, by the way. The Twin Tunnels will further drain the Delta as well as our local reservoirs and aquifers.
And no matter how hard tunnel advocates tap dance, they can’t obscure the essential fact that fish need water to live. Less water, in other words, means fewer fish. In addition, project proponents have stated their intent to condemn private land for their questionable habitat-restoration projects.
The Twin Tunnels, in short, are an ill-conceived boondoggle that will only make our fiscal and environmental problems worse, not better. It is a bad deal for Californians in general — and an especially horrible one for Northern Californians.
Tom Stokely is a water policy analyst for the California Water Impact Network. He lives in Mount Shasta.