North/South CA intensify water war

Chinatown - NicholsonJune 13, 2013 

By Wayne Lusvardi

A North/South California water war has been waging since William Mulholland took a civilian militia of shotgun-wielding soldiers to Owens Valley in 1927 to guard the Los Angeles Aqueduct from further bombings by local farmers.  At the time, national press called it California’s “little civil war.”  The fictional movie “Chinatown,” starring Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway, was based on the war.

Eighty-six years later the Northern counties in California are close to winning the battle, but it isn’t over till it’s over. Southern California still could win the perpetual North/South water war.

Northern California apparently has won by attrition and adjudication.  As a consequence, California is about to fund without voter approval a massive, redundant $14 billion Delta Twin Tunnels Project.  The tunnels would convey tributary river water under the Delta. This would allow fresh water to flow over the surface to restore  salmon runs between mountain fresh water lakes and the ocean outlet of the San Francisco Bay.

The 19 million water customers of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California will have to fund most of the cost of the tunnels.  A “No Project” alternative of continuing to rely on the existing Delta pumping facility and California Aqueduct would add no new cost and would deliver the same or less amount of water.  But the existing Aqueduct system cannot do one thing: overcome the massive environmental regulatory burden and constant lawsuits mainly from Northern California organizations that have historically embargoed Northern California water from being shipped southward.

Same organizations that hiked costs now oppose high costs

The California Environmental Quality Act and the Federal Endangered Species Act of the 1970s have made it possible to “game” the legal system to curtail water deliveries to Central Valley farmers and Southern counties by way of bogus lawsuits to protect the Delta Smelt fish.  But there are no laws preventing frivolous environmental lawsuits or imposing penalties on the governmental agencies that fight California’s water war.  To the contrary, an “independent” panel of scientists cleared those who gave false testimony in the Consolidated Delta Smelt Cases.

Ironically, the Northern California organizations that have brought about the need for a redundant Twin Tunnels project are the same organizations that now say the project is too costly and does not meet any cost/benefit tests.  If it were not for having to incur the massive cost of burrowing the tunnels to avoid damaging Delta farmers and protect bogus Delta Smelt habitat, perhaps the project would be more cost effective.  Proponents of the Tunnels say it would achieve a $5 billion benefit based on measuring project benefits over 50 years.

Northern California opposition to the Twin Tunnels is seemingly eating its cake and having it too. Northern California has created the reasons the Tunnels are so expensive and now is opposing the project because it is too costly.

One of the major contentions of the Northern California lobby in opposition to the Tunnels is that there will be cost overruns that will likely double the $14 billion estimated cost.  But it is Northern California that has created the situation of a totally unnecessary Tunnel project that will be a 100 percent jobs program and redundant water project.  In 1982, Southern California proposed a cheaper alternative than the tunnels called the Peripheral Canal that would have routed water around the edge of the Delta.  But the proposed Peripheral Canal was shot down at the ballot box.

There is a likelihood of large cost overruns to building the Delta tunnels.  But this is because the project has not been socially defined as a real public works project.  Instead it has unofficially been defined as a jobs program that will deliver no more water than the existing aqueduct system.  If the Tunnels were to be structured along the lines of the original State Water Project, cost inflation would be much less likely.

State Water Project had NO cost overruns

According to the Department of Water Resources Financial Statements for 2012, of the $1.75 billion of general obligation bonding originally authorized for the State Water Project, only $1.58 billion was issued up to 2012.  Only $362 million remained unpaid as of the end of the 2012 fiscal year.  The original State Water Project built the California Aqueduct, five dams and the Edmonston Pumping Plant at a cost of $1.75 billion.  Adjusted for money inflation, that would be $13.595 billion today. So at $14 billion in the current estimate, the Twin Tunnels would cost about as much as the existing State Water Project.

Despite the current public outcry that a doubling of costs is inevitable for the new Bay Delta Plan, there were no cost overruns in the initial State Water Project.  This is because the State Water Project was socially designed around cost controls to maintain political legitimacy.  Conversely, the Delta Tunnels project has weak political legitimacy. This is because the North doesn’t want the project and has inflated its cost and the South is realizing it would be compelled to pay for a redundant tunnel system.

Water doesn’t run uphill towards money and votes

It is often said that California’s water system “produces water that runs uphill toward money.”  But money and a supermajority of Southern California voters haven’t been able to make the Twin Tunnels politically legitimate. Northern California has been able to capture the legitimate moral high ground on water based on environmental protection, albeit based on junk science. The courts having found the case for preserving the Delta Smelt fish had “no scientific merit.” A major problem of the Bay Delta Plan is that it has vainly sought legitimacy by regulation, junk science, legislation and judicial authority with no statewide vote.

You can step in same river twice

An ancient proverb said, “You can’t step into the same river twice.”  But Southern California is about to have to pay twice for the same man-made river. The wasteful cost of the Delta Tunnels is ironically being justified on the basis of conservation. Southern California — which has had about 40 percent of its water from the Colorado River cut back and constant water shut downs of the California Aqueduct to protect fish –- doesn’t have much of an alternative but to proceed with the Bay Delta Plan.

Northern California has won the water battle in the courts and has dominated public opinion. But Southern California is proceeding to win the North/South water war.

Water history from Calif legislative analyst


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