How big a boondoggle is California’s Delta Pipeline?

  • Published on June 18th, 2012

The California Legislature recently failed to pass legislation requiring a cost-benefit analysis before the peripheral canal or tunnel is built – and it is no surprise why the bill garnered so much opposition from corporate agribusiness and southern California water agencies. But an academic study says the pipeline would costs would be two and a half times the benefits.

The first comprehensive economic benefit-cost analysis of the water conveyance tunnels at the center of the Bay Delta Conservation Plan (BDCP), conducted by the University of Pacific’s Eberhardt School of Business, Business Forecasting Center, reveals that peripheral canal doesn’t make any economic or financial sense.

The UOP report states, “We find the tunnel is not economically justified, because the costs of the tunnel are 2.5 times larger than its benefits. Benefit-cost analysis is an essential and normal part of assessment and planning of large infrastructure projects such as the $13 billion water conveyance tunnel proposal, but has not been part of the BDCP.”

Apparently, the members of the Assembly Appropriations Committee, who rejected Assemblymember Bill Berryhill’s bill calling for an independent cost-benefit analysis of the tunnel project, were afraid of a similar result if the bill, AB 2421, had ever become law.

“This report fills an important information gap for policy makers and water ratepayers who will ultimately bear the multi-billion costs of the project. The results can be easily updated if changing plans generate updated estimates of benefits and costs, but the gap between benefits and costs is so large that it seems unlikely that the tunnels could be economically justified in any future scenario,” according to the study.

The study examined the benefits, including export water supply, earthquake risk reduction, export water quality benefits and environmental benefits, and compared them to the costs, including capital costs, operating and maintenance costs and in-Delta and upstream costs.

“We find a benefit-cost ratio of 0.4, meaning that there is $2.50 of costs for every $1 in economic benefits. When these very low benefit-cost ratios are considered alongside the inconsistent and incomplete financial plans, it is clear that the Delta water conveyance tunnel proposed in the draft BDCP is not justified on an economic or financial basis,” the report concludes.

While the Brown and Obama administrations and corporate agribusiness have constantly touted “improved conveyance” as the “solution” to providing “reliability” to agriculture in California, the project’s construction would likely do the very opposite to Delta agriculture, according to the study.

“The Delta Protection Commission Economic Sustainability Plan estimated a water conveyance tunnel would result in an average of $65 million in annual losses for Delta agriculture; including about $50 million in losses from reduced water quality, and an additional $15 million in annual crop losses from roughly 8,000 acres of farmland lost to construction impacts and the physical footprint of the facilities,” the document reveals.

In essence, the water conveyance tunnel would taking large tracts of the most fertile land in California, the Delta, out of agricultural production in order to divert massive quantities of Delta water to irrigate subsidized crops on drainage-impaired, toxin-laced land on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley.

Dr. Jeffrey Michael, Director of the Business Forecasting Center (BFC) at the University of the Pacific, is the report’s primary author. To read the full report, go to:

So not only does the peripheral canal or tunnel pose an enormous threat to the Bay-Delta ecosystem, but it is not economically or financially feasible, according to this groundbreaking report. The taxpayers and ratepayers will foot the bill for the tunnel – at costs 2.5 times the benefits – while billionaire agribusiness tycoon Stewart Resnick, the Westlands Water District and other subsidized corporate agribusiness interests will profit.

“The common people will pay for the canal and a few people will make millions,” said Caleen Sisk, Chief and Spiritual Leader of the Winnemem Wintu Tribe. “It will turn a once pristine water way into a sewer pipe. It will be all bad for the fish, the ocean and the people of California.”

The peripheral canal or tunnel, if built, would hasten the extinction of Central Valley chinook salmon, steelhead, Delta smelt, longfin smelt and other fish species, according to both agency and independent scientists. This project, now being fast-tracked by Brown and Obama administrations, would result in the destruction of the largest estuary on the West Coast of the Americas.

Opposition against the environmentally destructive and economically unfeasible conveyance project continues to mushroom. On the day before the UOP report was published, Restore the Delta released a powerfully-worded letter from 38 environmental, fishing, consumer, Native American and other groups alerting U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar of the enormous environmental and economic perils posed by the Obama administration’s support of the peripheral canal.

The groups said the administration is “poised to make an enormous mistake…and potentially drag the American people along with it,” by backing “construction of a world-record-size tunnel or pipes capable of diverting 15,000 cubic feet per second from the Sacramento River – nearly all of its average freshwater flow.”

“The planning for California’s water future must return to a lawful, science-based, inclusive, and transparent process,” the letter stated. “The San Francisco Bay-Delta Estuary must not be stripped of the freshwater flows upon which so many vital public trust resources and West Coast communities depend. From its inception, this plan has been crafted by, and for, South-of-Delta exporters. They have used their economic power to influence and rush this half-baked, multi-billion dollar water tunnel.”

The broad coalition sounded the alarm after the Brown administration informed them that the State intends to proceed with construction of a peripheral canal or tunnel that the groups say “would have devastating ecological impacts.”

Organizations signing the letter include the Sierra Club California, Environmental Water Caucus, Friends of the River, California Water Impact Network, Winnemem Wintu Tribe, Golden Gate Salmon Association, California Sportfishing Protection Alliance, Center for Biological Diversity, Food and Water Watch, Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations, the Planning and Conservation League, the Environmental Justice Coalition for Water and dozens of other groups.

“The idea that you’re going to commit to building a $50 billion tunnel around the Delta that current science demonstrates won’t protect the estuary, and only later revise the science, develop assurances and decide how to operate it simply doesn’t pass the smell test,” said Bill Jennings, Executive Director/Chairman of the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance, Board Member of the California Water Impact Network and Executive Committee Member of Restore the Delta. “You can bathe this pig in perfume and apply lipstick, but it still won’t fly.”

The complete letter is posted here:

The big question is: If the peripheral canal/tunnel plan is economically, financially and scientifically unfeasible, then why are Governor Jerry Brown, Natural Resources Secretary John Laird and U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar still committed to this boondoggle?

About the Author

Dan Bacher is an environmental journalist in Sacramento who focuses on California's water issues, a healthy environment for the salmon fishery of the Northwest, and the attempts by big agriculture and big oil to hog all the water.