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California cuts giant water tunnel plan in half

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Department of Water Resources says “staged implementation” will focus on one waterway, at least for now

Flood Fears
The Sacramento river would quench Southern California’s thirst under Jerry Brown plan.
Photo by Andrew Burton/For The Washington Post via Getty Images

A plan to shuttle water from Northern California to the southern half of the state, via four-story tall pipelines, looks like it’s been cut essentially in half, according to a missive sent by the Department of Water Resources on Wednesday.

Governor Jerry Brown’s administration dubs the huge-scale water redistribution plan California WaterFix and previously imagined a pair of tunnels gushing precious hydration southward, channeling it from the Sacramento River and, in the words of one anti-water tunnel activist group, “maximize water exports from the San Francisco Bay Delta to the southwest San Joaquin Valley.”

As is usually the case in California’s water wars, the plan has proved mostly unpopular in the north. In 2017 the San Jose Mercury News called it “an awful idea that will squander billions without accomplishing the ‘WaterFix’ its name implies,” one of the more restrained criticisms of the 35-mile project.

But the Brown administration has stuck by the tunnel plan for years, framing it as a repair job for California’s aging water network.

“Without an update to our water infrastructure, the environment and the state’s economy are at risk,” warns WaterFix, adding, “We face serious potential for disruption to our water supplies causing job loss, higher food and water prices, and significant species decline” without intervention.

The plan all along has been for a pair of mammoth north-to-south tunnels. But on Wednesday, DWR Director Karla Nemeth sent a memo to California water districts announcing that the project will be “implemented in stages”:

A first stage includes two intakes with a total capacity of 6,000 cubic-feet per second (cfs), one tunnel, one intermediate forebay, and one pumping station. [...] If funding for all elements of the currently-proposed WaterFix is not available when construction begins, stage two would begin once additional funding commitments are made from supporting water agencies.

Celebration Of Life Service Held For Late San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

DWR hasn’t talked enough districts into the plan to cover the entire $17 billion tab, but it does believe it has enough back up to afford the $10.7 billion cost of just one tunnel right now.

The letter is careful not to suggest that the second tunnel is off the table, but its eventual existence depends on whether or not the state can persuade more regions to support the plan down the line, leaving its fate ambiguous.

“Participating public water agencies are expected to bring actions to their respective boards this spring to finalize the necessary agreements,” Nemeth added in closing.