Last week, Gov. Gavin Newsom’s administration took action to kill the controversial WaterFix project — also known as the Twin Tunnels — and directed state resources to consider a single-tunnel plan as part of a suite of long-term solutions to California’s water issues.
A press release issued by the California Natural Resources Agency (CNRA) stated that the move to a single tunnel is in response to Newsom’s direction to modernize the state’s water delivery infrastructure.
“A smaller project, coordinated with a wide variety of actions to strengthen existing levee protections, protect Delta water quality, recharge depleted groundwater reserves and strengthen local water supplies across the state, will build California’s water supply resilience,” said Natural Resources Secretary Wade Crowfoot.
Both opponents and proponents of WaterFix were quick to weigh in on the project’s demise.
“I feel great,” said Michael Brodsky, attorney for Save the California Delta Alliance, a Discovery Bay-based organization that has opposed the twin tunnels project since its inception. “It’s another victory for us. We’ve been fighting it and fighting it and keeping the heat on them. The war is not over, but we won a big battle.”
The California Department of Water Resources (DWR) withdrew its proposed permits related to WaterFix, effectively scrapping the project that’s been in the works for more than a decade and has cost at least $280 million to date, though some sources say that figure is much higher.
While Newsom avoided taking a firm position on WaterFix as a candidate for governor, he used his first State of the State address to clarify that he favored a single-tunnel plan over the twin tunnels. The future of WaterFix has been on unsure footing since that address in February, and the announcement last week sealed its fate.
Signaling a new direction in water policy, Newsom issued an executive order on April 29 establishing the water resilience portfolio, and directing his administration to inventory and assess a wide range of water-related challenges and solutions, including a single-tunnel Delta conveyance plan, climate change and accessibility to safe drinking water.
“California’s water challenges are daunting, from severely depleted groundwater basins to vulnerable infrastructure to unsafe drinking water in far too many communities,” said Newsom in the press release related to the executive order. “Climate change magnifies the risks. To meet these challenges, we need to harness the best in science, engineering and innovation to prepare for what’s ahead and ensure long-term water resilience and ecosystem health. We’ll need an all-of-the-above approach to get there.”
While the state has acted definitively to pull the plug on WaterFix, little has been said regarding the state’s motivation for taking this action. Brodsky speculated that, among other factors, Newsom has an “honest desire to have an honest process,” as well as other more practical considerations.
“I think it’s a combination of things,” said Brodsky. “I think the litigation was a catalyst. Our suits against the environmental impact report really showed that (it) was deeply flawed and it just wasn’t going to hold up in court. I think that’s one of the reasons they decided to go back to square one and start over.”
California State Assemblymember Jim Frazier credited Newsom for reviewing the project with a fresh perspective.
“I don’t think anybody could actually prove to the governor that (WaterFix) was a project of value,” said Frazier. “There was a huge myopic approach to this project from Southern California water interests. I think it resonated when we sat in a professional manner and said, ‘(For reasons) A, B, C and D, it just doesn’t work.’”
In April 2018, Karla Nemeth, director of DWR, proposed reducing WaterFix to a single tunnel as water agencies expected to cover the estimated $16.7 billion cost balked at the price tag. At the time, Metropolitan Water District of Southern California (MWD) increased their financial commitment to the project and agreed to finance nearly 65 percent of the cost to ensure two tunnels would get built.
“By and large, we’re pleased to see that there is a firm commitment to getting to addressing conveyance through the Delta and building new infrastructure to deal with that,” said Jeffrey Kightlinger, MWD general manager. “Obviously, we thought the superior approach was the larger capacity. But we understand the governor’s direction and we’re acknowledging it and willing to work within the belief that the direction is that we’re going to build something, so that’s the important thing.”
Kightlinger said he expects the new, single tunnel will have two intakes instead of three and be capable of carrying 50-60 percent of WaterFix’s planned capacity. A tunnel smaller than that would fail to deliver the economic benefits necessary to keep MWD engaged in the project.
“If you get less than 50 percent of the capacity that was proposed, which is around 4,500 to 5,000 (cubic feet per second), if you get much smaller than that, the value of the benefits drop off pretty rapidly compared to the cost,” explained Kightlinger. “... If you get much lower than that it becomes, frankly, not worth it to us, and we’d probably say, ‘If the state wants to go build it, good luck and godspeed. But we’re not directly participating.’”
With the prospect of a single tunnel still looming in the future, Sacramento-based environmental attorney Osha Meserve acknowledged that the effort required to protect the Delta, its residents and its wildlife is far from over.
“We continue to be concerned about any tunnels or diversions in the north Delta for all of the reasons that we laid out in water board and other processes,” said Meserve. “Even a single tunnel could do a lot of damage to the watershed and beneficial uses in the Delta … The footprint impacts, I think, stay quite similar.”
Brodsky and Kightlinger both estimate that it will take about three years to complete an environmental impact report, and Kightlinger expects the process will kick off in the next 60 days with the state’s issuance of a notice of preparation (NOP) that will define the scope of the preferred project.
“I think that if everything goes well, they could get an environment review done and get to the point of making a decision in three years,” Brodsky estimated. “What’s going to make it go faster rather than slower, and smoother rather than a rocky road, is just to be honest and have a transparent process. Don’t try to put your thumb on the scale to get a result. If they do that, people will cooperate and help them rather than throw up roadblocks.”
For information on the water resilience portfolio, visit: http://resources.ca.gov/initiatives/water-resilience/. For information on Save the California Delta Alliance, visit: https://nodeltagates.com/. For information on the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, visit: http://www.mwdh2o.com/.