Gov. Newsom Revives Delta Tunnel Project

“After decades of failure, California dusts off controversial Delta tunnel water project,” headlines a July 27 Modesto Bee report. As author Dale Kasler explains, the administration of Governor Gavin Newsom has unveiled “a downsized version of the controversial, multibillion-dollar plan to re-engineer the fragile estuary on Sacramento’s doorstep that serves as the hub of California’s over-stressed water-delivery network.”

As we noted in 2015, Governor Jerry Brown proposed to drill two massive tunnels under the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, at an estimated cost of $25 billion. As Katy Grimes of the California Globe notes, each tunnel would be 150 feet below ground, 40 feet in diameter and 30 miles in length. All told, Brown’s original “Waterfix” project was “bigger than the English Channel Tunnel.” 

Gov. Newsom scaled it down to a single tunnel, now rebranded the Delta Conveyance Project. The state Department of Water Resources (DWR) provided no cost estimates, and as KCRA reported, “state officials don’t know how much it will 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. Though significant, costs are not the only issue. 

The Modesto Bee cited objections from Stockton-based Restore the Delta. A lawyer with the Natural Resources Defense Council predicted “far worse ecological conditions for native fish and wildlife in the Delta.” And the Delta Counties called the conveyance “another deeply deficient and flawed tunnel plan that would do very little to improve statewide water supplies and bring lasting harm to the Delta.”

Grimes calls the tunnel plan a “behemoth jobs project” which raises another issue. Gov. Newsom is concerned about climate change but state agencies have not calculated how much fossil-fuel energy the tunnel project would burn up. As the timeline suggests, it would be plenty. 

If the tunnel project is approved, construction would begin in 2028 and according to the Modesto Bee, would take as much as 20 years to complete. That should remind taxpayers that the costs and consequences of government projects often outlast the careers of the politicians who propose them. 

The tunnel project moves water around but creates no new supplies. On that front the state seems to have a problem tapping the biggest water source in the world, the Pacific Ocean. In May, the California Coastal Commission, rejected a southern California desalination plant that would have provided 50 million gallons of drinking water a day for nearly half a million people in Orange county. 

The Coastal Commission is an unelected body that overrides scores of local governments on land-use issues. Californians can be forgiven for believing that the state’s ruling class is indifferent to the most basic needs of the people.

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