The costs of Jerry Brown’s water-stealing tunnel outweigh the benefits

  • Published on July 18th, 2013

You’d think that before a state spent $54 billion on a massive environment-breaking construction plan, they’d actually do a serious cost-benefit analysis. But you’d be wrong.

Jerry Brown by DonkeyhoteyRestore the Delta (RTD) on Wednesday, July 17 told Bay Delta Conservation Plan (BDCP) officials at a public meeting in Sacramento that the Brown administration is “refusing to follow its own guidelines for determining whether a project’s benefits outweigh its costs.”

The group, opponents of Governor Jerry Brown’s fast-track campaign to build two giant peripheral tunnels that would drain the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and doom salmon and other Pacific fisheries, last week exposed how Caltrans officials were confiscating signs of “Save the Delta! Stop the Tunnels!” signs displayed by Delta land and business owners without any legal basis.

The “Signgate Scandal,” covered by an array of media outlets, has revealed how the Brown administration is willing to attack the First Amendment in its zeal to build the tunnels

Jane Wagner-Tyack, RTD policy analyst, noted that the latest cost estimate for building Peripheral Tunnels has tripled from initial estimates, and not a shovel has yet been turned.

“The first estimate was $4 billion, and is now more than $14 billion,” said Wagner-Tyack. “The cost keeps escalating and the benefits diminishing.”

Restore the Delta pointed to findings of the administration’s own analysis showing the ‘through-Delta’ alternative has the highest benefit-cost ratio of all the options. The Brown Administration has analyzed the benefits to the water-takers, but not to the people of California as a whole, and has failed to disclose that California families will pay thousands of dollars, yet receive no new water.

Three separate analyses of the costs, benefits and financial burdens of the proposed Bay-Delta Conservation Plan (BDCP), and its californai's proposed routes for the bay delta peripheral canal tunnelsPeripheral Tunnels all found it costs more than its benefits, and that it will impose a heavy financial burden on California businesses and families, according to the group.

“The Brown Administration has repeatedly refused to conduct a comprehensive benefits-cost analysis, ignoring the rules of the very agencies pushing the project. Instead, they have produced partial and scattered reports that the public will not find useful in determining whether this largest-ever California water project is worth the crushing cost. The project would cost a typical Los Angeles family up to $9,0000, according to a report from ECONorthwest,” Restore the Delta said.

Wagner-Tyack stated, “The State has refused to conduct a comprehensive cost-benefit analysis, in violation of its own policies. This leads to the conclusion that the governor doesn’t want the people of California to know whom the Peripheral Tunnels would primarily benefit, what the true costs of the Peripheral Tunnels are, who would pay, and how much, or that there is a more cost-effective solution.”

BDCP hasn’t met the criteria for financial feasibility set forth in DWR’s own “Economic Analysis Guidebook”: “The test of financial feasibility is passed if (a) beneficiaries are willing and able to pay their allocated costs for project outputs over the life of the project” (page 46). BDCP can’t evaluate financial feasibility without a cost allocation, and they don’t have a final cost allocation. So far, they haven’t shown benefits/costs for agricultural beneficiaries under proportional cost allocation.

The group said Westlands Water District and other Central Valley Project (CVP) contractors pay the Bureau of Reclamation only for the water they receive, so in years when water deliveries are less than projected, revenues don’t recover the federal investment in the project. But in years when actual water deliveries exceed projected deliveries, excess revenues are refunded to the contractors instead of being used to reduce unpaid capital costs and Operations and Maintenance deficits.

“We still see a project with no comprehensive cost-benefit analysis, no analysis of water availability,” said Wagner-Tyack. “This boondoggle will impose heavy financial burdens on California families and businesses, while mainly benefiting a few mega-farmers in Westlands and Kern water districts. There is a better, cheaper and faster way to address our water challenges.”

Food & Water Watch commissioned ECONorthwest to analyze the impacts that the costs of building and operating the tunnels would have on LADWP ratepayers. It outlines a low-cost scenario of $20.6 billion, and a high-cost scenario of $47.2 billion.

For each, they evaluate the costs if the state and federal water projects evenly split the costs of the tunnel and related activities, and if the state project paid 100 percent. The report is available for review here.

In other Delta tunnel news, Mayor Kevin Johnson and City Manager John Shirey both expressed their opposition on July 16 to the peripheral tunnels at a groundbreaking ceremony for a big upgrade on Sacramento’s water treatment plant, according to KCRA Channel 3 News.

“I would say I do not agree with the governor as it relates to the two tunnels,” Johnson told KCRA 3 and other reporters at the ceremony.

The mayor then quickly stopped himself from saying anything more, but KCRA 3 asked him to clarify his remarks.

“For us, we want to be good stewards and I feel Sacramento needs a seat at the table,” Johnson told the reporter. “And we want common sense policies, and I’m certainly supportive of that today. But I’m not in favor of where we are today and certainly I’m going to speak out every chance I get.”

Delta residents, fishermen, Indian Tribes, family farmers and a growing number of elected officials oppose the Bay Delta Conservation Plan (BDCP) to build the peripheral tunnels because the $54.1 billion project will hasten the extinction of Sacramento River Chinook salmon, Central Valley steelhead, Delta and longfin smelt, green sturgeon and other fish species. The project would also, under the guise of “habitat restoration,” take large areas of Delta farmland, some of the most fertile on the planet, out of production in order to deliver massive amounts of water to irrigate toxic, drainage-impaired land on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley.

The peripheral tunnels also threaten salmon and steelhead restoration on the Trinity River, the Klamath’s largest tributary. The Trinity, whose water is diverted to the Sacramento River via a tunnel to Whiskeytown Reservoir, is the only out of basin water supply for the federal Central Valley Project.

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Dan Bacher is an editor of The Fish Sniffer, described as “The #1 Newspaper in the World Dedicated Entirely to Fishermen.” 

(Jerry Brown image by DonkeyHotey.)

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.