Santa Clara water agency favors a pared-down California Delta tunnel project

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LOS ANGELES — The Santa Clara Valley Water District voted unanimously to participate in the $17 billion California WaterFix project Wednesday, but only if a smaller and cheaper project is considered.

The northern California water supplier is the third major water district to affirm it will contribute financial support.

“Conditions in the Delta threaten our future water supply,” said Board Chair John L. Varela. “I commend my fellow board members for having the courage to stand up for what’s right for the people and the businesses of Santa Clara County.”

Metropolitan Water District of Southern California and Kern County Water Agency's board both voted in favor of contributing last week.

The project appeared to be in jeopardy when Westlands Water District, a water supplier in the heart of the state’s agricultural Central Valley, voted in late September to not contribute financial support.

WaterFix, which would build tunnels to move fresh water around the San Joaquin-Sacramento River Delta, is designed to prevent salt water from entering the state's system that moves water from the rainier northern regions to its agricultural and urban users to the south.

The Santa Clara board did add several caveats to its support, however. One of which was that it would not allow Silicon Valley “values and priorities to be placed at a disadvantage relative to the Central Valley.”

Water supply disputes involving this project, and others in the state, have often pitted urban customers against farming interests. Environmental groups have long-opposed the project arguing that it will result in fish kills.

As at the MWD board’s public hearing, the Santa Clara water board also raised the specter of a single-tunnel proposal that would be less costly, but could send state officials back to the drawing board.

The single tunnel idea has been under discussion for years, but it hasn't been a part of the state's plan and would require significant reworking of plans, said Andrew Ward, a Fitch Ratings director.

“The prospects for such a project are quite uncertain,” Ward said. “Reworking the project could delay it until after the WaterFix's main champion, Governor Brown, leaves office, which would be a significant blow to the plan.”

“If a smaller project brought broader consensus among stakeholders, a new governor might champion it,” Ward said. “It would depend on the degree of additional support the smaller project generated among water agencies, environmental groups, Northern Californians and residents of the delta region. That's very unclear.”

The single tunnel would go through the same area. It would take less water from the Delta, which could be seen as positive for the environment, Ward said.

“However, urban policy makers appear primarily concerned about the price of WaterFix, given large local supply projects on the agenda,” he said. “The urban agencies are also sensitive to potential environmental costs, given the environmental concerns of California's urban voters and the risks to project effectiveness if environmental benefits don't materialize. But cost appears to be the main driver of the debate.”

Santa Clara's vote for a smaller WaterFix keeps the agency in the debate, Ward said, but it is undoubtedly a setback for proponents of the twin tunnels.

This vote and the Metropolitan debate show that the meaningful part of the urban beneficiaries of the WaterFix would prefer a smaller project; or are suffering $17 billion sticker shock, Ward said.

“Water planners may like this engineering solution,” he said. “Their constituents remain skeptical after many years of debate. It's never easy reaching consensus among California water stakeholders, but we do think this keeps the debate alive.”

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