California Lawmakers Push for Oversight of Delta Tunnels Project

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) – A group of Northern California lawmakers seeking more sway over a mammoth $17 billion water project introduced a proposal Friday that would require new construction contracts to be reviewed by the Legislature. 

One of many bridges linking the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta to the outside world. (Nick Cahill/CNS)

The Legislative Delta Caucus says because of the scope of the California WaterFix, the project should require more scrutiny from both the public and lawmakers now that former Gov. Jerry Brown has left office.

Brown fiercely advocated for the expensive public works project that he and supporters believe will both update the state’s aging water delivery infrastructure and protect it against sea level rise and other effects of climate change.  Also known as the Delta Tunnels, the project calls for two 30-mile tunnels that would funnel water around the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta to aqueducts that supply farmers and cities farther south.

State Sen. Bill Dodd, D-Napa, believes his proposal will shed new light on the “flawed” project that environmental groups bitterly oppose.

“This bill gives the Legislature and delta residents a place at the table to learn about what’s going on, express concerns and offer solutions that will serve Californians. We’re eager to begin a new chapter, where the voices of those who live in our delta communities are adequately considered,” Dodd said in a statement.

Senate Bill 204 would require the state agencies in charge of WaterFix, namely the state Department of Water Resources, to submit information about pending contracts with private companies to the Legislature before finalizing deals.

Voters nixed a similar water project in the 1980s but the concept was revived under former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and advanced by Gov. Brown.

During his final term, Brown and his officials were able to successfully lobby the state’s largest water districts into financing most of the project’s estimated $17 billion price tag. The main player, Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, agreed to pay for the bulk of the project this past July and many other suppliers have followed suit.

Yet the project is far from shovel-ready despite Brown’s efforts in 2018: Environmental lawsuits, damning audits and now a new governor mean the fate of WaterFix remains a mystery.

Delta residents and environmental groups warn that if built, the twin tunnels would be the final blow to ecosystem already beset by poor water quality and declining salmon populations. The delta is the largest estuary on the West Coast and it supplies water for thousands of farms and an estimated 25 million Californians. Critics worry that depriving the delta of flows from the Sacramento River will spoil water quality by allowing brackish water from the San Francisco Bay to creep deeper into the estuary.

“Californians deserve to know the true financial and environmental impacts of WaterFix, the largest public works project in state history,” said Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla, executive director of Restore the Delta, which is sponsoring the proposal. “SB 204 will help make the planning process more transparent so members of the public can evaluate WaterFix for themselves.”

New Gov. Gavin Newsom has taken a more subdued approach to WaterFix thus far, and has promised to look at the project with “fresh eyes.” He also suggested on the campaign trail that the project may have to be scaled down to one tunnel instead of two.

Newsom’s office declined to comment on Dodd’s proposal, adding SB 204 would be evaluated “on its merits” if it reaches his desk. 

Democratic Assemblyman Jim Frazier, whose district covers parts of the delta, called SB 204 a 
“common-sense, good-government bill.”

“Any large infrastructure project or major decision by a state agency should have legislative oversight. This is why people elect us. To protect their interests. Hopefully, the foolish WaterFix proposal will never be allowed to move forward,” Frazier said in a statement.  

%d bloggers like this: