Brown’s ‘WaterFix’ has new momentum – but daunting obstacles remain

Just six weeks ago, Gov. Jerry Brown’s hopes for a huge, difficult legacy project to solidify California’s statewide water distribution system – one funded by water districts, not directly by taxpayers – appeared in bad shape.

Years of lobbying for what the Brown administration dubbed the WaterFix project had produced more indifference and outright opposition than support. The $16.7 billion plan would build two 35-mile-long, 40-foot-high tunnels to take water south from the Sacramento River to the State Water Project pumps in the town of Tracy. The governor argued that this would sharply reduce the intermittent heavy pumping that played havoc with endangered species in the fragile Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta and would firm up supplies both for Central Valley farmers and the 20 million-plus residents of Southern California.

But in September, the board of the Westlands Water District – which serves 600,000 acres of farmland in King and Fresno counties and is the largest U.S. agricultural district – voted 7-1 against providing about $3 billion for the project. Westlands officials trashed claims made for WaterFix, questioning whether it would actually stabilize the Delta ecosystem and predicting cost overruns.

In November, the Trump administration announced that the federal government would not provide any financial assistance to get the project built. While the Interior Department statement was not unexpected, it contributed to the sense the WaterFix proposal was foundering. By February, Brown administration officials had put the word out they would accept building only one tunnel under the delta and adding a second later.

MWD backed scaled-back project, then changed mind

The death of the original plan appeared confirmed on April 2 when officials with the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California – the giant, politically powerful water wholesaler serving 19 million people – issued a memo expressing support for the one-tunnel option. The rationale: a lack of a consensus for the two-tunnel plan among the water districts south of Sacramento that would need to pay for the project.

But after intense lobbying by the Brown administration, on April 10, the MWD board voted by a 3-to-2 margin to endorse the two-tunnels project and to agree to pay for about two-thirds of the tab – about $10.8 billion. The weighted vote, based on the size of individual agencies, came over the objections of the MWD board’s single largest member, the San Diego County Water Authority.

Momentum continued to build last Wednesday when the board of the Santa Clara Valley Water District – the biggest water agency in Silicon Valley – voted 4-3 to commit its 2 million ratepayers to pay up to $650 million for the project, or nearly 4 percent of the total tab. Santa Clara officials had previously narrowly opposed providing funding.

On Thursday, Brown hailed the decision in a speech to a conference of the Association of California Water Agencies in Sacramento. But the governor also warned that the project still had big obstacles that went beyond getting more water districts to agree to share construction costs. He noted that state and federal regulators still had yet to issue required permits.

On this front, WaterFix may face more skepticism in Brown’s backyard than in Washington. As CalWatchdog reported last year, the Trump administration gave a key senior Interior Department post to Colorado lawyer David Bernhardt, a veteran of California water wars and a critic of the federal government’s traditionally high-profile role in land-use decisions in Western states.

Meanwhile, the California Water Resources Control Board has sided with environmentalists in a long list of previous decisions. In filings with the state board, Restore the Delta and several other environmental groups have challenged the governor’s project on its central claim: that it improves the health of the Delta ecosystem.

Even if the state and federal permits are granted, the tunnels plan still faces hurdles. The Bay Area News Group reported last week that more than two dozen state and federal lawsuits had been filed against the project.


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  1. Queeg
    Queeg 14 May, 2018, 11:57


    Article synopsis:

    Grab your Ankles!!!!

    Reply this comment
  2. Jay L. Stern
    Jay L. Stern 14 May, 2018, 13:52

    California water wars have been ongoing for well over 100 years. Diverting more water to Soutern California is expensive and will very likely damage the Sacramento Delta, just as it has the Owens Valley. Yes, So. Cal. is practically a “desert,” but that doesn’t mean importing more water, just to allow it to run off into the ocean, is wise. We desperately need more spreading grounds, reservoirs, water reuse and conservation projects. Importanly, we need to live within our “water budget” Expensive, new pipelines — especially as large as those proposed under this plan — is also foolhardy. By that I mean a breach of them will cause regional flooding and case the users at the end of the line to become parched. And breaches can be natural, as in crossing earthquake faults, or man-made, as by terrorists hitting a “juicy” target. California is set to require solar power for new construction. While I hate government intrusion, I’d like to see more solar myself. What does this have to do with water? It is the same concept. New construction should be incentivized to conserve water by grey water recycle, onsite waste water upgrading and efficient shower heads. What is NOT a good idea is the low-flow toilets which require two or three flushes per use and allow solids build-up reqiuring the services of a plumber to clear.

    Reply this comment
    • Sean
      Sean 14 May, 2018, 17:22

      Water and solar power should go hand in hand. First of all I think around 1/7 of the electricity in the state is consumed by moving water. However, when you pump water over mountains it takes a lot of power to lift it which can be recovered on the way back down. Put some reservoirs at the top of sufficient size and California will smooth out the duck curve where peak generation is out of phase with peak demand by several hours and you’ll no longer have to pay Arizona to take your excess renewable generation. This would likely cost only a third that battery storage would cost and your already paying to lift the water over the mountain passes anyway.

      Reply this comment
  3. VintageVet
    VintageVet 14 May, 2018, 15:49

    Sure, let’s increase taxes to build some big pipe lines to move water away from a high use area to another high use area. Of course the amount of available water is finite so somewhere is going to come up short. Why don’t we jerk pumping and distribution of water out of greedy private hands for starters and instead take advantage of the vast supply of water to the west. Yes, I’m talking about desalinization. By my reckoning that is the only real, controllable means we have for making potable water. Grey water is fine for agriculture, but nobody is going to want to drink it no matter what it’s final chemistry or how many water district officials gulp some down on TV. All naysayers are encouraged to investigate the desal-tech in operation in the arid Arabian peninsula countries. Ultimately, it is the only real solution to California’s burgeoning finite water supply crisis.

    Reply this comment
  4. Spurwing Plover
    Spurwing Plover 16 May, 2018, 16:25

    Sorry but deverting water from tje farmers to save some dumb 3 inch fish(Delta Smelt)is stupid just like with the stupid Snail Darter its not right

    Reply this comment
  5. ricky65
    ricky65 16 May, 2018, 16:32

    It’s not a water fix, it’s a legacy fix for a hippie buffoon governor who has nothing to show for his four terms of office except record high taxes in every category, crumbling infrastructure, crushing regulation,unaffordable housing, sky high energy prices, crime and homelessness on the increase, millions of illegals flooding the state and a disappearing middle class fleeing the liberal tyranny.
    Nice job, Moonie. You have fulfilled your destiny.The Golden State is no more.

    Reply this comment
    • Ulysses Uhaul
      Ulysses Uhaul 16 May, 2018, 16:59

      You sound ? upset

      Reply this comment
      • ricky65
        ricky65 17 May, 2018, 08:31

        Iyam, your Ulyness. I know it costs 2-3 times taking a rental trailer out of Cali than bringing one in. But maybe you have a special going on these days on one of your broken down, bald tired, squeaky wheel bearing trailers?
        On second thought, the Calicommies have so fleeced my pockets I can’t afford to rent. I’ll just have to pile my belongings into my dilapidated pickup and move. A pee soaked mattress tied on top just like the Grapes of Wrath in reverse.

        Reply this comment
        • Ulysses Uhaul
          Ulysses Uhaul 17 May, 2018, 14:03


          You sound like give us your tired, oppressed or something like that.

          We are running a vitamin water special for the doomed moving in July 2018. We love ya!

          We are looking into shipping in trailers by rail from Texas. You will get a spiffy clean one????.

          Reply this comment
          • Ulysses Uhaul
            Ulysses Uhaul 17 May, 2018, 14:11

            P.S. we recap all our baldies immediately at Poodle’s truck stop in Adelanto. He even puts that glisten stuff on the black walls. Sorta luxury touch…

  6. Teddy Trumpy Tillerson
    Teddy Trumpy Tillerson 16 May, 2018, 19:40

    Gov Brown is a genius
    Relax doomera
    He will solve your little problems

    Reply this comment

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Chris Reed

Chris Reed

Chris Reed is a regular contributor to Cal Watchdog. Reed is an editorial writer for U-T San Diego. Before joining the U-T in July 2005, he was the opinion-page columns editor and wrote the featured weekly Unspin column for The Orange County Register. Reed was on the national board of the Association of Opinion Page Editors from 2003-2005. From 2000 to 2005, Reed made more than 100 appearances as a featured news analyst on Los Angeles-area National Public Radio affiliate KPCC-FM. From 1990 to 1998, Reed was an editor, metro columnist and film critic at the Inland Valley Daily Bulletin in Ontario. Reed has a political science degree from the University of Hawaii (Hilo campus), where he edited the student newspaper, the Vulcan News, his senior year. He is on Twitter: @chrisreed99.

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