‘I would encourage you to get up to speed’

Some of the same old arguments, but also a few interesting exchanges between Delta-area legislators and the state administration today at a hearing regarding the cost of the proposed twin tunnels.

Assemblywoman Kristin Olsen, R-Modesto, asked how the state could convey more water out of the Delta without harming senior upstream water rights.

“We’re not conveying more water out of the Delta with this facility. We’re conveying it more reliably,” responded Laura King Moon, deputy director of the Department of Water Resources. The state is merely changing the place where much of the water is diverted, King Moon explained.

Olsen countered that the current conveyance facilities are used at only 40 percent capacity. The purpose of the tunnels is to convey more water from north state to south state. “How can DWR and the (Bay Delta Conservation Plan) say with any sense of credibility that more water will not be conveyed through the tunnels than is conveyed today through the conveyance system that is only operating at 40 percent?” Olsen asked.

It’s the same amount of water, King Moon repeated. It’s just that some of it would be taken from the north end of the Delta, through the tunnels.

“In a year like this that would be zero?” Olsen pressed.

“We would be taking no water in a year like this,” King Moon replied.

“If that’s the case, what are the tunnels doing to solve the water problem?”

King Moon replied that if the tunnels had been in place last year, when exports were curtailed to protect Delta smelt, there would be 800,000 additional acre-feet of water in depleted San Luis Reservoir.

“It would help, yes,” King Moon said. “That’s a lot of water.”

Would it fix the drought?

“Not by itself, no,” King Moon said. “We’re not claiming BDCP solves all of the state’s water problems.”

Olsen asked if the “$67 billion” cost could be better spent capturing more water in wet years through additional water storage, and then using the existing conveyance facilities at 80 percent instead of 40 percent.

“I don’t accept $67 billion, for the record,” King Moon said, adding that most water agencies have already invested in storage, and that this shouldn’t be an “either-or” discussion.

Olsen asked if King Moon agreed with the assemblywoman’s statement that the current conveyance system is used at only 40 percent capacity.

“I’m not familiar with that particular percentage,” King Moon said, adding that she’d be “happy to check.”

Finished Olsen: “As the chief deputy director for the Department of Water Resources, I would encourage you to get up to speed on all those issues.”

An awkward pause, and the hearing went on:

–Asked if project costs are spiraling out of control, King Moon said the water that would be delivered through the tunnels is “reasonably priced” compared with other options in California.

–The water contractors are paying for the tunnels themselves. Asked if the state would be forced to scale back on ambitious habitat restoration plans in the Delta if state and federal funding didn’t materialize, BDCP consultant David Zippin replied, “That’s a possible outcome.” But, Zippin added, state and federal grants are available specifically for the purpose of funding habitat restoration.

–As for the project’s reliance on $3.5 billion in federal funding, Zippin said that expectation is “very consistent with what they’ve been providing over the years for similar actions.” The money would be made available through appropriations over a period of 50 years.

–King Moon said the project is about 10 percent designed. Given the recent highly publicized cost overruns with the new Bay Bridge, Assemblyman Jim Frazier of Oakley asked, how could King Moon be sure the 37 percent contingency already built into BDCP cost estimates would be enough? King Moon acknowledged the state is “very worried” about overruns and said big projects are “difficult to manage.” But the state is keeping a close eye on it, she said.

–Anton Favorini-Csorba, with the Legislative Analyst’s Office, said his office found BDCP cost assumptions to be “generally reasonable.” He said the proposed contingency seems “relatively in line” with engineering practices. He did say he thinks the state’s $1 billion estimate for land acquisition costs in the Delta might be low, because purchasing so much land in a relatively concentrated amount of time might drive up land prices. Favorini-Csorba said there is “some potential” for cost overruns, but added that overruns on water projects tend to be smaller than they are for transportation projects.

–He added that there may be “potential for additional public liability” if conservation measures don’t work as anticipated. If factors beyond the scope of BDCP continue to put species at risk of extinction even after the tunnels are built and habitat restored, the state and federal endangered species acts would require some kind of action to prevent extinction. And those actions would not be borne by the water agencies involved in BDCP because they will have already made their commitments and gained assurances, Favorini-Csorba said. “Maybe the state and federal governments might be on the hook for additional measures,” he said.

–University of the Pacific economist Jeff Michael, who has consulted for the anti-tunnels Delta Protection Commission, once again warned that urban users may end up paying for the bulk of the project because the water will not be affordable for farmers. In a drought year like this, the water users would essentially be paying $1 billion in debt service each year for “no extra water,” Michael said. “I can’t think of anything worse we could do for them than give them a billion in debt service for a project that isn’t working,” he said.

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