DELTA FLOWS: What’s missing in the new Delta Tunnel price tag?

– Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla, Restore the Delta

At the August 20, 2020 Delta Conveyance Design and Construction Authority meeting, it was revealed that the proposed Delta tunnel would cost $15.9 billion for construction and that $400 million would be budgeted to mitigate impacts resulting from construction. 

Discussion of immediate planning expenses and tunnel costs occurred after comments from Restore the Delta and Local Agencies of the North Delta (LAND) insisting on transparency. We collectively wanted to know about the costs of the project and Delta tunnel planning paid for in advance by the Department of Water Resources and indicated that these items had to be made understandable to the public. 

For comparison, let’s remember that Governor Brown’s California WaterFix (the two tunnel project) was budgeted at $17 billion for two tunnels that could export 9000 cubic-feet-per-second (cfs) of water. 

The new single tunnel is budgeted at $15.9 billion for 30 percent less water delivery capacity. While we believe that this assessment of construction costs for the single tunnel is more accurate, it also reveals a diminishing return in water supply for the cost of the project.

Metropolitan Water District of Southern California stated in 2018 that inflation for construction costs would be 5 percent annually. Generally, bond debt doubles the price of a project. The tunnel will cost in total $30-$40 billion, without cost overruns. The Department of Water Resources notified the public Friday afternoon that the joint EIR/EIS would be available summer of 2022.  At 5% inflation over two years, the tunnel by that time will cost $17.4 billion dollars, more than the original twin tunnel project.

Moreover, the State Water Project Contractors’ constant drumbeat that the project is needed to serve 28 million Californians is an inadequate talking point. The majority of counties in California are not served by the State Water Project, and many served by the State Water Project receive little water from it. You cannot simply have a majority take whatever it wants from the other third or even greater of California’s population without true mitigation and protection of public trust resources. 

Locally, tunnel construction will devastate our Delta farm economies and result in significant water and air pollution for our already stressed urban areas. Our assessment of what true mitigation would cost is in the billions. $400 million will not mitigate the damage done to Stockton’s drinking water quality and surrounding waterways, the air pollution impacts, let alone the damage done to North Delta legacy farming towns and farming throughout the Delta and loss of irrigation water.

Governor Newsom needs to understand that the project has not gotten any better. All plans for meaningful improvements to the Delta are being ignored by the Department of Water Resources. A tunnel is more costly than ever; and it will not make more water for the state.

With cash-strapped public agencies, an economic collapse, costly wildfires, and a pandemic still not under control, the Delta tunnel makes less sense than ever.

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