Tunnels in the West Coast’s Greatest Estuary is Not the Solution to California’s Water Problem

Commentary by Ken Cooley

As California’s population grows and climate dynamics extend periods of drought, supplying water to Californians has become increasingly challenging. Much of California’s water supply passes through the Sacramento−San Joaquin River Delta estuary, and Governor Brown’s proposed solution to divert water from this critical estuary threatens its health and has been controversial − receiving criticism from activists, environmentalists and economists alike.

The “WaterFix” proposal includes the construction of two tunnels (40 feet in diameter and 35 miles long) underneath the Sacramento−San Joaquin River Delta.  The Delta is the largest estuary on the west coast of North and South America and home to multiple species on the brink of extinction, including winter-run Chinook salmon, Central Valley steelhead, delta and longfin smelt, and green sturgeon. It is vital to the Pacific Coast Flyway through which innumerable species of birds migrate.

“We must find a climate resilient solution to providing Californians with a reliable supply of water. That solution shouldn’t rely on the fragile Sacramento−San Joaquin River Delta estuary – a habitat critical for the survival of multiple endangered species and a cherished part of California’s heritage,” said Assemblyman Ken Cooley.

At least 58 groups opposing the tunnels have sued the state arguing the WaterFix project violates state environmental laws.  Litigating groups include those whose livelihoods depend on fishing, several Sacramento area water agencies, surrounding cities, and San Joaquin, Solano, and Yolo counties.

Environmental issues aside, the project is on shaky ground economically. The estimated $17 billion price tag of WaterFix was calculated without taking into account interest repayment and is based on the assumption that agricultural districts (some of which are specifically exempt from paying for the tunnels) will pay for 45% of the project without any subsidies from urban ratepayers or state taxpayers.

Large cracks in these assumptions are showing themselves and efforts to pass costs on to ratepayers and taxpayers are already ongoing. According to an audit released this month by the US Department of the Interior’s inspector general, $50 million in taxpayer funds were used improperly to subsidize the San Joaquin Irrigation District for their part in helping plan WaterFix – despite insistence from the Brown administration that no tax dollars would finance the controversial tunnels.

On September 19, officials from the Westlands Water District (who supply water to Fresno and Kings county farmers) defeated an alternate funding plan pitched by one of the state’s largest farming groups. The plan would have included raising funds from water districts in more urban areas, including the greater Sacramento area. Not only is this contrary to the promise that urban ratepayers would not subsidize WaterFix, but would have put Sacramento ratepayers in a position where they would be paying to dredge their local estuary and pump the area’s water supply to other parts of the state.

All Californians deserve access to clean and reliable drinking water. Unfortunately, the proposed WaterFix project is not the right solution for all Californians. Instead, the state should consider other viable alternatives including water storage, recycling and conservation – that can work for all communities in California and wouldn’t rely as heavily on the largest estuary in the state.

Assemblyman Ken Cooley represents the 8th Assembly District which includes the communities of Arden-Arcade, Carmichael, Citrus Heights, Rancho Cordova, Rancho Murieta, Rosemont, Wilton and other portions of unincorporated Sacramento County.   For more information, please visit http://asmdc.org/members/a08/

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