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Unanswered Questions In The Water Tunnel Analysis:

Backers of the water tunnels at the heart of the proposed $25 billion plan for updating and replumbing the Delta of the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers thought they had played a trump card the other day when they presented a 244-page economic impact report.

The analysis authored by UC Berkeley economist David Sunding puts the state’s profits from building the tunnels at $84 billion over the first 50 years after the project is completed (http://ht.ly/nEobp). Long before it’s finished, the project would be a jobs bonanza, Sunding asserted, producing 177,000 jobs over 10 years of construction.

And yet… there was confirmation, too, that this expensive plan would not produce much more water than comes through the Delta today, somewhere between 4.7 million and 5.2 million acre feet of water yearly. The difference, said Sunding and his sponsor, California Natural Resources Secretary John Laird, is that the flow would be steady – everyone involved knowing from year to year how much water to expect.

Listening to them and Alan Zaremberg, California Chamber of Commerce president, hype the project via press conference and conference call, it was clear they hadn’t thought much about the great Peripheral Canal battle of the early 1980s.

“We didn’t write this report at all with a perspective on the 1980s,” said Sunding.

Maybe he and his co-authors should have. Adding to their analysis a few considerations inspired by that fight might give the new plan, dubbed “peripheral tunnels” by some, a better chance.

For the Peripheral Canal, pushed then as now by Gov. Jerry Brown, became the ultimate regional issue in California, and there is a paucity of regional analysis in the new economic study.

The canal was to have taken Sacramento River water around the Delta via a concrete ditch looking similar to the state Water Project’s current aqueduct, much of which is easily visible from the I-5 freeway in the San Joaquin Valley.

Many in Northern California feared it could not be filled without water from wild rivers like the Eel, the Trinity and the Klamath. So after Brown and the Legislature approved the canal, a ballot referendum killed the project. The anti-canal vote was near unanimous in the San Francisco Bay area and other parts of Northern California. In Southern California, the canal got 65 percent backing.

That stark regional division might play out again over the tunnels, despite laws passed in the interim to protect wild rivers.

That’s why any useful tunnels analysis must indicate which areas benefit and how much. When the economic analysis says the project would produce 117,000 jobs, would almost all involve construction work between the tunnel intake near Sacramento and the big pumps near Tracy that move water south? How many white-collar engineering jobs would the Los Angeles and San Francisco areas get?

The same with benefits from the steadier water supply the project is supposed to ensure. Statewide, the economic analysis valued increased water supply reliability, better water quality and reduced flooding and earthquake risk at $18 billion over the 50-year life of the project, compared with a cost of $13 billion (before interest). That’s a net benefit of almost $5 billion.

But there’s no clue who will profit or how much. Will it be Central Valley farmers, fishermen, operators of recreational facilities in the Delta or urban water users? Or all of them?

Similarly, while the analysis notes that water users will pay back the project bonds (with interest bringing total costs to $25 billion), there is no clue about which users will pay most. Farmers would get the lion’s share of the water, as they do today. But would they bear most of the costs, passing those along to buyers of almonds, cotton, citrus and other crops?

Or would most costs fall to residential and industrial water customers in Southern California and the San Francisco Bay area, even if they get only a minority share of the water?

Said Sunding, “The costs and benefits for each water agency (and its customers) are not yet determined.”

That means the latest economic analysis is simply not very useful, despite its high profile and page count. Which leaves the jury still out on the entire tunnels plan.

in Opinion
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