SACRAMENTO (CN) – Coming up billions short of a projected $16 billion price tag, California officials said Wednesday they would move forward, at least initially, with a smaller project touted as a “fix” for the state’s outdated water-delivery system.
In a pitch to water agencies that are primarily responsible for funding the ambitious project, Governor Jerry Brown’s administration said it plans to start building a single tunnel instead of two under the West Coast’s largest estuary.
Department of Water Resources Director Karla Nemeth said in a letter that the one-tunnel approach would cost $10.7 billion, but she left open the possibility of completing a second later on. She said construction could begin on the project bitterly opposed by both environmentalists and many Northern California farmers by the end of 2018.
“Being prepared and having the option of a staged implementation of WaterFix is prudent, fiscally responsible and meets the needs of the public water agencies funding the project,” the letter states.
The announcement is the latest tweak to a decades-old project, known as the WaterFix or Delta Tunnels, which has been routinely stalled by lawsuits, environmental roadblocks and skyrocketing costs.
The state hopes to eventually build two 35-mile tunnels under the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta. The tunnels would funnel water around the delta to the state’s southernmost farmers and cities, including Los Angeles.
While Brown has touted the project at every turn during his final term, he’s lost support for the pricey project with some critical participants. Westlands Water District voted against funding their share of the WaterFix last fall, forcing the state back to the drawing board.
The single tunnel could pump 6,000 cubic feet of water per second and would require two new intakes along the Sacramento River along with one downstream forebay and pumping station. If completed, the additional tunnel would allow for 9,000 cfs to be diverted around the delta.
WaterFix critic Restore the Delta said despite the trimmed cost, the commitments from participating water agencies “falls short” of the single-tunnel estimated cost. Executive Director Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla said she doubts the project breaks ground before Brown leaves office.
“Realistically, there is not enough time between now and December, 2018, when water resources plans to break ground—whether symbolically or physically,” Barrigan-Parrilla said in a statement. “We remain convinced that a fifth reiteration of the project will not save WaterFix from failure and will ultimately deal a devastating blow to the health of the ailing San Francisco Bay-Delta estuary.”
According to the state’s letter, supplemental environmental impact reports for the single tunnel could be completed by October.
Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, which serves 19 million people, says completing the water project stages is the result of “economic realities at this time.” The country’s largest water district and biggest supporter of the WaterFix agreed to contribute $4.3 billion to the project last October.
“By staging California WaterFix, the state can tap the critical mass and support it has to move forward with an initial phase that modernizes the water system in the delta by designing and constructing one tunnel and two intakes,” said Jeffrey Kightlinger, Metropolitan general manager.
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