Trusting the tunnels: For many, it just got harder

“Beneficiary pays.” It is one of the bedrock promises of the Delta tunnels plan, one which I have seen repeated time and again at public meetings, in interviews and in boatloads of documents over the past 11 years.

“Those who would benefit from the tunnels would pay for them.” How many times has that sentence, more or less, shown up in my copy?

The Office of Inspector General’s audit on Friday appears to erode that basic, fundamental promise. It turns out that the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation contributed nearly $85 million to the tunnels plan over a period of seven years. That’s nearly one-third of all of the planning costs as of mid-2016.

Some of the money — about $50 million — was obtained through what auditors called a “complex, obscure process” that let the water districts off the hook for repaying the tab to the federal government. Rather explicitly, under the Delta Reform Act, the water agencies — not the taxpayers — are supposed to pay not only for the tunnels’ construction but also for environmental planning and design.

“USBR could not provide us with a rationale for its decision to subsidize (Central Valley Project) water contractors, other than the water contractors asked USBR to pay,” the auditors wrote.

The bureau did divulge to some members of Congress in a 2013 letter that federal money had been spent on the planning effort, but that was years after the spending started. In 2014, regional officials with the bureau say they got permission from the top brass to use the process outlined in the audit — again, years after they started doing it.

Following the audit’s release, San Joaquin County elected officials put out some of the most scathing statements I’ve ever seen from them on the subject of the tunnels.

“The Office of the Inspector General’s audit provides irrefutable proof that (tunnels) proponents cannot be trusted and the integrity of the process for reviewing the tunnels should be questioned,” county supervisor Chuck Winn said. “…(Tunnels) supporters will clearly say and do anything in order to get the tunnels constructed, including misusing taxpayer dollars, employing deceitful accounting tactics and betraying the public trust.”

The bureau has disputed the audit, saying all that its actions were taken in “good faith.” At the same time, the bureau promised not to take those actions again. Read into that what you will.

The bottom line is that for opponents, the tunnels project has always been about trust, or lack thereof. Can they trust that the tunnels will be operated in a scientifically defensible way after a $17 billion investment has been made? Can they trust that the adaptive management process will not be subverted by politics? Can they trust that some future administration will not simply waive whatever strict new water quality standards might be established to protect the Delta?

Project proponents have tried to reassure them on these points and others. On Friday, that task got even harder.

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