Local Business

Tuesday, Jul 23 2013 11:00 PM

LOIS HENRY: Tunnel water plan promoted, but is Kern buying?

  1. 1 of 1

    Californian columnist Lois Henry

    click to expand click to collapse
By LOIS HENRY, Californian columnist lhenry@bakersfield.com

Gov. Brown's point man on water came to Bakersfield Tuesday to try and shore up support among water contractors for the administration's proposed "twin tunnels" project to route water through the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

I don't think he hit his mark

Related Info

'First Look'

Lois Henry appears on "First Look with Scott Cox" every Wednesday on KERN 1180 AM from 9 to 10 a.m. The show is also broadcast live on www.bakersfield.com. You can get your two cents in by calling 842-KERN.

Jerry Meral, deputy secretary of the Natural Resources Agency, was an engaging speaker who gave a lot of information about this complex subject.

But he couldn't give audience members what they really wanted: How much water could contractors count on via the tunnels? And how much will it cost?

Which was odd, because Meral started his talk acknowledging that those are the burning questions for water contractors.

Even more odd, he seemed to issue a warning, of sorts. Or maybe he meant it merely as a nod to how integral the contractors in the room are to the proposal.

"It will not be the opposition that stops this project, or lawsuits," he said. "If it fails, it will be because of the unwillingness of the people who would use it to write the checks."

That struck an off chord.

"I thought, 'C'mon Jerry, if we're unwilling to write more checks, it's because the fish agencies and environmentalists have made the project untenable,'" said Eric Averett, general manager of the Rosedale-Rio Bravo Water Storage District. "What are you trying to do? Guilt us into it?'"

Let's hold up a second and get some background here.

Most ag water districts in Kern County, and many urban districts here and throughout the state, rely on water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

If you think this doesn't affect you, think again. Most city dwellers rely on ground water, a very finite resource.

The less imported state water farmers have, the more they'll pump from the ground.

That is an absolutely unsustainable situation, which could eventually hit you right in the tap.

Getting water out of the delta has become much less reliable as declining populations of the endangered delta smelt have crimped the amount of water contractors can take.

For the past six years a process called the Bay Delta Conservation Plan (BDCP) has been underway to try and find a middle ground where the smelt is protected and everyone gets at least some water supply.

The BDCP is basically a habitat conservation plan, which could include the twin tunnels, depending on the outcome of a final environmental impact report.

The studies underlying the BDCP haven't come cheap, about $240 million to date. And the water contractors have footed the entire bill.

Now, contractors are being asked to pay the cost of building the twin tunnels, estimated at $14 billion.

Which is why just about every ag district in Kern was represented at Meral's talk on Tuesday, hosted by the Water Association of Kern County.

Meral's best advice was pretty weak, frankly.

He said each water district should calculate for the worst case scenario and see if the numbers made financial sense to them to continue investing in the process.

The tunnels might yield 4.6 million acre feet (the worst case) or 5.3 million acre feet (the best case).

He promised to have better numbers in the fall.

Even the best case scenario only gives contractors a little more water than they're getting now, Averett pointed out.

Not only that, the state's own economic analysis shows the project would mostly benefit urban areas. That's because urban districts like the Metropolitan Water District can spread the cost of the water over a much larger number of users.

I spoke with Meral later about the unease water contractors have with the vague twin tunnel numbers.

Some local districts have already opted not to continue funding the BDCP process any longer. And others are teetering in that direction.

While Meral said if the entire Kern County Water Agency dropped out, it would be "devastating" to the project, he downplayed concerns over one or two districts dropping out.

He couldn't imagine that if one district dropped out, another district wouldn't pick up that open share.

Despite all the unanswered questions, he was fairly certain contractors would come to the table and make a deal.

Without another game in town, he could be right.

Opinions expressed in this column are those of Lois Henry, not The Bakersfield Californian. Her column appears Wednesdays and Sundays. Comment at http://www.bakersfield.com, call her at 395-7373 or e-mail lhenry@bakersfield.com

Have something to share? Comment on this story

Bakersfield.com Daily Deal!

Rankin Locksmith

Daily Deal

$75 For Whole House Re-Key ($150 Value)

Value
$150
% Off
50%
You Save
$75
4 Bought
Buy Now! See more deals