California's water contractors would have a key role in the design and construction of the $14 billion twin-tunnel plan for the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta under a pact quietly being negotiated by state water officials, a newspaper reported on Monday.
Documents obtained by the Sacramento Bee show the Department of Water Resources has been in talks with regional water agencies to create a joint exercise of powers agreement for the tunnel diversion project at the heart of the massive Bay Delta Conservation Plan.
Promoted as a way to deliver more water while restoring the ailing delta, the plan is a federal and state initiative that has been largely financed by the water contractors at a cost of about $200 million thus far. The 35-mile project would carry water south from the delta to vast farmlands and thirsty cities. Proponents say it would reduce the mortality of threatened fish, because water would mostly be diverted from the north portion of the delta, where fish would not be sucked into deadly pumps.
The plan also calls for creation of more than 100,000 acres of new habitat floodplains, tidal marshes and grasslands that proponents say will help fish. Environmentalists and activists say the plan could lead to further declines in the delta ecosystem, because too much water is already syphoned out of the delta. The possible joint powers agreement would mean water agencies that have a stake in securing their water supply would take a major, direct role in designing and building the tunnels.
The pact would include Westlands Water District, Kern County Water Agency and Metropolitan Water District of Southern California all powerful contractors that provide water to farmers in the San Joaquin Valley and residents in Southern California cities. The Santa Clara Valley Water District in the San Francisco Bay area would also play a role. Documents obtained by the Bee say an agreement would create a nine-member board of directors that includes the DWR director and regional director of the Bureau of Reclamation.
The remaining seven members would represent water contractors.
The DWR director would be chairman of the board. On most matters related directly to construction activities, decisions would be made by majority vote, giving water contractors the ability to control key decisions in the project, including design, facility location, land acquisition, budget and scheduling.
When construction is done, DWR would own and operate the facilities as part of the State Water Project. Critics say giving water agencies the power to make decisions could further harm the delta and trample the rights of farmers and property owners, because the agencies are not impartial and have financial motivations. State officials defend the agreement.
A pact between the state and water contractors would allow for transparency and sharing of expertise, DWR Director Mark Cowin told the Bee. Metropolitan, for instance, has experience with massive tunneling projects after completing an inland feeder tunnel in 2009.
The tunnel, though much smaller than the proposed twin tunnels, conveys delta water through the San Bernardino Mountains to Diamond Valley Reservoir near Hemet.