How San Diego Went From Booster to Skeptic on the State's Massive Water Project
Gov. Jerry Brown wants to build two 35-mile underground tunnels to keep water coming south through the Sacramento-San Joaquin Bay Delta. The San Diego County Water Authority used to pine for such a plan. But now, emboldened by its drought-proofing projects and wary of shocking ratepayers, the agency is aggressively questioning Brown’s delta tunnels.
For over 50 years, the San Diego County Water Authority championed projects that bring water to Southern California from Northern California. But no more.
Leaders of the Water Authority look at Gov. Jerry Brown’s plan to ensure water keeps flowing to Southern California with skepticism and dismissal.
The Water Authority now says it may turn its back on that whole endeavor and is, by some accounts, working to undermine the governor’s most important piece of unfinished business.
Brown wants to build two 35-mile underground tunnels to keep water coming south through the Sacramento-San Joaquin Bay Delta, a series of waterways and wetlands fed by snow melting in the Sierra Nevada mountain range. The tunnels would be 150 feet underground. The price tag would be at least $17 billion.
The Water Authority used to pine for such a plan. Not so long ago, it handed out “Fix the Delta!” buttons and made a Delta fix its top legislative goal in 2009. A failure to come up with a solution was, its top officials once argued, cowardly and a threat to California’s entire economy.
But now the Water Authority seems emboldened by its ability to weather the most recent drought after spending over $3 billion on other water supplies and storage projects. It’s also wary of shocking ratepayers with even higher bills.
So it stands apart from other Southern California water interests that support the tunnels. Instead, the Water Authority is allied with environmental groups and others in Northern California that generally oppose the south’s northward-bending straws.
Together with these strange new bedfellows, the Water Authority has aggressively questioned Brown’s delta tunnels, even though San Diego still depends on the north for about a quarter of its water supply.
Water Authority leaders say San Diego might not need that water in the future and that we should be wary of the costs. Nobody is yet sure who will pay how much.
“Until I get answers, I’m not going to support it,” said Jim Madaffer, vice chairman of the Water Authority’s board.
Some in the California water world wonder if the Water Authority is acting solely on behalf of ratepayers or at least partly to spite the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, which supports the tunnels. The Water Authority buys much of its water from Metropolitan but the two public agencies are embroiled in various legal fights and turf wars.
Jerry Meral, a former Brown administration official who worked on the tunnels, said he suspects the Water Authority wants the tunnels but also wants to give Metropolitan a hard time.
“I kind of think that deep down they know the project is very important and they’d better not overturn it,” Meral said.
In 1960, Water Authority leaders led San Diego voters to support the State Water Project, the system of canals, pipelines and reservoirs that now carries Northern California water to Southern California.
The State Water Project never delivered as much water as promised, partly because it was never truly finished. A canal was supposed to route water around the environmentally sensitive delta. But this “peripheral canal” was controversial, expensive and never built. Its critics believed the canal would be used to suck Northern California dry. They called it the “vampire ditch.”
In 1982, during Brown’s first stint as governor, the peripheral canal was put up for a statewide vote. In San Diego, 73 percent of voters supported the canal. The rest of the state did not.
Every governor since – including Brown again now – has talked about some sort of “fix” for the problems of the unfinished State Water Project.
One problem is immediate: Pumps that pull water through the delta are turned down if endangered fish are too close, which cuts the amount of water available for Central Valley farmers and urban Southern Californians. A canal around the delta or tunnels through the delta could partly solve that problem.
There’s also catastrophic worries about earthquakes and climate change. A major quake could destroy many of the old, earthen levees that direct water through the delta. Then, salty water from the ocean could rush in, cutting off a major supply of drinkable water for months or even years. A rising ocean could also fill the delta, though more gradually.
In 2009, the same year that getting some fix for the delta was her top priority in Sacramento, Water Authority General Manager Maureen Stapleton said the state needed “leadership” and “guts” to solve the delta problems. In 2011, her assistant general manager, Dennis Cushman, said the failure to shore up the Northern California water supplies would “threaten California’s economy for generations to come.”
Around 2010, other stuff was happening at the Water Authority.
It was negotiating with a private developer, Poseidon, to build an ocean water desalination plant in Carlsbad. That plant is now open and can meet about a tenth of San Diego’s water needs.
The Water Authority also started getting more Colorado River water because of a deal it made to buy water from the Imperial Irrigation District.
And, in summer 2010, the Water Authority filed a lawsuit against Metropolitan for charging too much to deliver Imperial’s water to San Diego.
Because of those deals, San Diego had more water than it needed last year, despite the drought. This all fueled a sense that the Water Authority didn’t need as much Northern California water and that it needed to watch its pocketbook. The Imperial water and the desalinated water are relatively expensive to begin with. Metropolitan’s overcharges could cost hundreds of millions more. After spending over $3 billion on local water supplies and storage capacity, officials are worried about ratepayer backlash.
As Brown’s tunnel project started moving ahead, the Water Authority – long supportive of a delta fix – became skeptical of this fix.
The Water Authority questions whether San Diego will receive enough water to justify the multibillion-dollar price tag.
The tunnels are smaller than the original canal. If the 1982 version of the peripheral canal had been built, you could stare at one spot in it for one second and see a year’s supply of water for the average California household pass by. If the delta tunnels are built and you stared at them both, it’d take about two and a half seconds for the same amount of water to pass by.
The plan also lacks a long-term permit that would have prevented supplies from being curbed unexpectedly because of environmental concerns.
And there’s an even larger question about the whole State Water Project: Is Sierra snow reliable enough to spend billions trying to capture?
California’s water infrastructure was designed to gradually capture snowmelt from that vast mountain range. It was not designed for climate change. A warmer climate could change the mix of rain and snow falling in Northern California, leaving us with too much rain and not enough snowfalls. California could also enter prolonged droughts where nothing falls.
The Water Authority also does not know what the tunnels will cost it or, in turn, San Diego ratepayers. Tunnel supporters say the cost will be about $5 a month for the average ratepayer. But, so far, nobody has formally agreed to pay for the tunnels, meaning it’s impossible to truly divide up the costs.
Leaders of California’s two most powerful water agencies, Metropolitan and the Fresno-based Westlands Water District, support the tunnels. Westlands is a farming district and its Central Valley farmers would benefit from water carried through the tunnels, as long as the water is cheap enough.
But Westlands and Metropolitan have yet to agree how to share the project’s costs. The Water Authority doesn’t want to commit to paying anything without knowing more about what it’ll be getting. It’s afraid Metropolitan will agree to pay too much for the water in order to accommodate farmers’ concerns.
“If it’s worth it to somebody, fine,” said Mike Madigan, a former Water Authority board member who championed the peripheral canal in the 1980s but is skeptical of the tunnels. “If it’s worth it to Westlands, great, by all means pitch in – but don’t come to San Diego for all the money because it’s not that important to San Diego.”
The Water Authority is Metropolitan’s biggest customer and is on the agency’s board, but the Water Authority can’t block the deal there on its own, even if it wanted to. The other major player on the Metropolitan board, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, declined to comment for this story.
The Water Authority is officially neutral on the tunnels project. Its board approved a set of requirements for and questions to ask about any delta project, but has not voted to support or oppose anything.
John Laird, the state natural resources secretary, said in a recent letter to the Water Authority that its questions are good. He hopes the Water Authority is keeping an open mind about the tunnels.
That hints at how the Water Authority’s questions are being perceived by others – as rhetorical questions rather than earnest inquiries.
Others dispute the notion that the Water Authority is neutral.
In December 2015, Paul Weiland, a water attorney in Irvine, accused Water Authority staffers of working behind the scenes to undermine the tunnels.
In a letter sent to the Water Authority’s board and to the governor, Weiland didn’t say who he was working for, adding an air of mystery to the letter. But, in another document, he identified his client as the Coalition for a Sustainable Delta, one of several groups fighting over the Delta. That particular group supports the tunnels and is tied to agricultural interests that control vast swaths of California’s water.
Weiland cited emails between Water Authority staffers and known critics of the tunnels to make his case.
One of those exchanges occurred in late 2012 between Water Authority staff and environmentalists working on an alternative to Brown’s tunnels. A few weeks later, in mid-January 2013, Stapleton, the Water Authority general manager, signed a letter backing a group of environmentalists’ alternative plan, which included a single, smaller tunnel.
(Later that year, Water Authority staff spent more time studying the smaller tunnel option. They concluded that Brown’s larger tunnels made more sense.)
Mike Lee, a spokesman for the Water Authority, said the Water Authority is concerned about costs and benefits but continues to support a “cost-effective, right-sized fix for the Bay-Delta.”
What that means is still anyone’s guess until the board votes, something that could happen in coming months.
But Barbara Barrigan-Parrill, the head of Restore the Delta, an anti-tunnels group, believes the Water Authority is in her camp – at least for now.
“Politics makes for strange bedfellows and strange coalitions – they’re with us until they’re not with us,” she said.
Why the Water Authority is so aggressive is up for debate, too.
“It would be nice if others would ask tough questions,” Water Authority vice chairman Madaffer said.
Even after years of studies that cost tens of millions of dollars, some basic questions about cost remain unanswered.
Madaffer said the Water Authority is just running a “ratepayer protection program.”
Others suspect an additional reason: the Water Authority’s ongoing contretemps with Metropolitan.
“The nearly decade-long conflict between San Diego and (Metropolitan) is blocking a good beneficial policy discussion of the role of the Delta in future water supplies,” said Lester Snow, a former Water Authority general manager who later worked on delta issues for the state.
Madaffer said the Water Authority’s lawsuit against Metropolitan – which the Water Authority is so far winning – “caused us to have more of a ‘doubting Thomas’ attitude.” That’s because Metropolitan was found to be illegally charging the Water Authority for State Water Project-related costs even when Metropolitan was only delivering Colorado River water to San Diego.
That means that if San Diego loses a later round in the court battle, it could end up paying for the delta tunnels even if it doesn’t want any of the water.