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Tuesday, Jul 24 2012 10:30 PM

LOIS HENRY: Governor's Delta tunnel plan: devil is in the details

By LOIS HENRY, Californian columnist

Local agricultural water districts will be listening closely to Gov. Jerry Brown's announcement today about his plans to fix the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

Brown wants to run Sacramento River water through twin tunnels beneath the Delta's tangle of channels and islands to giant state and federal pumps at Tracy.

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Lois Henry hosts Californian Radio every Wednesday on KERN 1180 AM from 9 to 10 a.m. You can get your two cents in by calling 842-KERN.

In particular, water folk will be looking for three very specific devils in the details that Brown may, or may not, give today. Those are: supply, cost and assurance.

* How much will the project yield, exactly?

* If water has to be diverted from the project for environmental uses, who pays for that?

* Will contractors be able to rely on a specific amount of water from the project?

So far, those details have not been forthcoming through the six-year-long Bay Delta Conservation Plan (BDCP), which is the environmental process underpinning the governor's tunnel plan.

Water contractors have not only waited six years for such details, they've also been the ones paying to keep the BDCP process afloat, about $160 million for studies so far.

Contractors, both state and federal, have tentatively signed on for another $80 million.

But patience, and wallets, are wearing thin.

Two of Kern County's smaller districts, Tehachapi-Cummings and Henry Miller, have already pulled out of funding the BDCP and other districts have been teetering.

"It's like going into a car dealership, plunking down $12,000 and saying will you give me a car? And the dealer says, 'Well, maybe. It depends...'" was Rosedale-Rio Bravo General Manager Eric Averett's take on the process.

The stakes are huge for contractors like Rosedale and other districts locally.

That's because, if the tunnels go forward, the water contractors will be on the hook for the entire cost, estimated now at $14 billion.

It's unclear if they would also pay operating costs. Habitat restoration of more than 100,000 acres, a so-called "co-equal goal" of the BDCP, would likely be paid for through state bonds.

When it comes to water and that kind of money, contractors aren't in lock step. Even ag districts will differ among themselves.

It all depends on each district's financial situation and what other water supplies they have, said Kern County Water Agency General Manager Jim Beck.

"It can get down to the individual growers to determine if it's truly economical," he said.

But, again, that all depends on the details.

Beck isn't expecting specific numbers from the governor today. What he and other water contractors want is for the governor to lay out a path including dates for when the BDCP will be able to give specific numbers on cost, supplies, etc.

And it needs to happen soon.

"We cannot go to next June without knowing that information," Beck said.

If enough water districts do walk away from the BDCP, the project could come down to just a few players, such as the Metropolitan Water District (MWD), which supplies hundreds of communities in Southern California, and Westlands Water District, which covers western Fresno County.

It's likely both, or MWD alone, could pay for a smaller project to serve their own needs, though that's a distant possibility.

Still it's a scenario that has ag districts like Rosedale figuring more "what ifs" into potential continued support of the BDCP.

Water contracts would be good until 2035, Averett said, but contractors all recognize that without a new conveyance system they would likely continue to suffer ever more unreliable water supplies.

So, in that sense, the state has them somewhat over a barrel.

"Yeah, and it's a really uncomfortable barrel," Averett said.

Even with all the unanswered questions, contractors were encouraged by the attention Brown has given this issue.

"Six years ago, it was taboo to even say the words 'peripheral canal,'" said Brent Walthall, KCWA's assistant general manager. "Today, we're not talking about whether it's doable, but what size."

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

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