California Tunnel Vision Survives the Pandemic

As we noted, the current pandemic has failed to lock down spending on California’s vaunted high-speed rail project. The pandemic has also failed to halt the massive underground tunnel that would pump water from the San Joaquin Delta to central and southern California. The so-called “Waterfix” was a pet project of Gov. Jerry Brown, and Gov. Gavin Newsom remains on board.

Gov. Brown wanted two tunnels, but Newsom scaled it down to one. In January, Newsom issued a notice of preparation for the project, the first step in environmental review. As of June, the state Department of Water Resources “continues to advance the Delta Conveyance Project” and requested authorization for activities in the waters of the United States. The DWR website provides no cost estimates, and as KCRA reported in January, “state officials don’t know how much it will cost.” Taxpayers can find estimates in past tunnel activity. 

Gov. Brown’s two-tunnel plan would have cost in the region of $16 billion. The Public Policy Institute of California’s Water Policy Center wanted a single tunnel as a “grand compromise” but failed to nail down the total cost. A report from California’s State Auditor, The Unexpected Complexity of the California WaterFix Project Has Resulted in Significant Cost Increases, pegged the planning costs alone at $280 million as of June, 2017. The audit found that the state Department of Water Resources, “did not follow state law when it replaced the program manager for the conservation and conveyance program.” The DWR selected the Hallmark Group “without advertising a request for qualifications,” and “the cost of DWR’s current contract with Hallmark has tripled from $4.1 million to $13.8 million.”

The digging had not even started when the project hit corruption. More is doubtless in store, and total costs remains elusive. As a general rule, with government everything always costs more and takes longer. The new span of the Bay Bridge, for example, came in $5 billion over cost and ten years late. With the tunnel, costs are not the only issue.

“We anticipated that there might be an effort to employ a list of efficiency, conservation, and other measures to reduce dependence on a tunnel before moving forward on such a massive and environmentally harmful project,” Sierra Club California Director Kathryn Phillips told KCRA in January. “Now we’ll have to focus a lot of time and energy on battling the tunnel again.”

K. Lloyd Billingsley is a Policy Fellow at the Independent Institute and a columnist at American Greatness.
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