Local Politics

Tuesday, Nov 19 2013 09:00 PM

LOIS HENRY: Delta tunnel angst overflows in both north and south

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    Californian columnist Lois Henry

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By LOIS HENRY, Californian columnist lhenry@bakersfield.com

A discussion item at the Kern County Water Agency's October meeting regarding the state's "twin tunnel" proposal to fix the Sacramento-San Joaquin delta set off alarm bells with at least one northern California newspaper.

Hey, water's a touchy subject.

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Especially these days as the California water world awaits the final environmental impact report Gov. Jerry Brown's ambitious plan to move water around the delta via two huge tunnels.

Central and southern California water agencies which would get the water would have to pay for the tunnels.

And it's not a trivial sum: Kern County agricultural water districts would be on the hook for about $2 billion of the $16 billion construction cost.

All that for a supply that would remain uncertain.

The state won't, or can't, say, how much water that $2 billion would guarantee them, or if they'd have any guarantees at all.

Not surprisingly, Kern water agencies aren't lining up to pay their share of the tunnels. Most Kern folks I've spoken with still have no idea if they'll opt to stay with the project or opt out and take their chances under their current contracts.

Meanwhile, northerners remain convinced the tunnels will suck even more water away for urban sprawl in the south.

Things are tense.

 

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Recently, when the Kern County Water Agency held a wide-ranging discussion on unresolved issues, including a concept which could involve the government buying water to run through the delta, The Sacramento Bee heard about it.

And on Sunday The Bee editorialized.

"To sweeten the deal... the Brown administration has been quietly floating the idea of an 'enhanced environmental flow' program under which public money would be used to supplement flows in the Delta, for the purpose of helping species to recover. Documents from an Oct. 18 meeting of the Kern County Water Agency suggest that officials are discussing a figure of $1 billion to $1.5 billion for the program," The Bee wrote.

To know why this struck a chord with The Bee, you have to understand a little history.

Back in the early 2000s a state and federal agency called Cal-Fed tried to smooth out environment-versus-ag issues by buying water from districts to increase delta flows. An entity called the Environmental Water Account (EWA) was the water broker.

There wasn't much, if any, oversight and the EWA ended up paying some districts far more than the districts had initially spent on the water.

In some cases, local districts bought the water for as low as $70 an acre foot and resold it to the EWA for $210 and $300 an acre foot, citing pumping and transportation fees for the extra costs.

From 2000 to 2002 the EWA paid more than $60 million to several Kern County water districts, according to Californian reports at the time.

That's a lot of taxpayer money, and when the word got out the program fell into disfavor and was discontinued.

But it's still a sore point, as evidenced by the SacBee editorial.

"All this looks suspiciously like the Environmental Water Account," The Bee's editorial warns about this new "enhanced environmental flows" proposal. "A major beneficiary of the EWA was the Kern County Water Agency, a state water contractor and one of the agencies balking at paying for (delta protections)."

 

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I can understand concern over any replication of the EWA.

But there may not be as much going on here as The Bee fears.

I spoke to several water districts, to the Kern County Water Agency and to the Department of Water Resources. From these conversations I got the impression that few people really know what is going on.

Kern agency board member Ted Page understood the program would involve the federal and state government buying water from northern California interests to increase delta flows. But that's about as much as he had heard.

The old EWA bought what was known as "Article 21" water from contractors south of the delta. Article 21 refers to high flow, excess water that the Department of Water Resources would sell to recover some of its operational costs.

"There is no Article 21 water anymore because of environmental restrictions," Page said.

This new enhanced flow idea is just that, he said, an idea to improve water yields south of the delta.

He said no one has said where the money would come from or how the process would work.

Either way, Page and others said the enhanced flow concept isn't big enough to make or break the deal for them

"The bigger question is what's the benefit to Kern if we fund this project?" asked Jason Gianquinto, general manager of Semitropic Water Storage District.

Once the final environmental impact report is out, the clock starts ticking and decisions will have to be made in early 2014 for districts to pony up or duck out of the project altogether.

So far, three Kern districts have formally opted out of the process, Kern Delta, Tehachapi-Cummings and Henry Miller. Rosedale-Rio Bravo Water Storage District has all but opted out.

"Absent some new info or progress on key issues (cost and quantity) I do not expect our board to continue funding," Rosedale General Manager Eric Averett wrote in an email.

"A lot of people are staring at each other and scratching their heads," said Harry Starkey, general manager of West Kern Water District. "The uncertainty is creating a lot of angst among ag people."

If too many Kern districts drop out, that could be a problem.

In fact, Jerry Meral, deputy secretary of the state's Natural Resources Agency, called that prospect "devastating" for the tunnels when he came to Kern in July to try and shore up support for the project.

Like I said, things are tense.

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 LOIS HENRY ONLINE

Read archived columns by Lois Henry at Bakersfield.com/henry

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