.Alternative to Governor’s Giant Water Tunnels Plan Would Be $6 Billion Cheaper

State officials recently admitted that they had incorrectly analyzed an alternative proposal to Jerry Brown’s giant water tunnels plan, and now acknowledge that it would be $6 billion cheaper than the governor’s proposal. The California Natural Resources Agency had previously said that the competing water plan—known as the Portfolio Alternative— would only save the state $3 billion, and as a result, was not viable.

“It’s clear that the Brown Administration did not honestly analyze the Portfolio Alternative,” wrote six members of California’s Congressional delegation in a statement last week. “The state owes the public a full and proper explanation of both of these plans, who will truly benefit from each, and what they will actually cost.”


The Delta.

  • California Department of Water Resources
  • The Delta.

Ever since Brown unveiled his plan to build to massive water tunnels that would ship freshwater from the Sacramento River to agricultural interests in the arid San Joaquin Valley and Southern California, it has been shrouded in controversy. Known as the Bay Delta Conservation Plan, the $24.5 billion water project, according to the Brown administration, would create a more secure water supply in California, and restore the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta’s impaired ecosystem.

However, some environmental groups say the plan could destroy the Delta by allowing huge amounts of freshwater to be exported before it reaches the estuary. Many small farmers in the Delta also worry that the plan will destroy their livelihoods. And BDCP’s wetland restoration project may do little to benefit certain threatened fish species. As the Express reported last summer, BDCP could end up being a conservation plan that ultimately destroys one of California’s natural treasures.

In response to these shortcomings, a group of environmentalists, water districts, and politicians have proposed a more conservation-oriented approach toward solving California’s water woes called the Portfolio Alternative. As the name suggests, the plan would address California’s water shortages in many ways—including building a much smaller and cheaper peripheral tunnel, and investing in water storage, recycling and levee projects.

Yet despite wide-ranging support for the Portfolio plan, the state doesn’t consider it a viable option. In a letter written to the San Diego County Water Authority in September, Secretary of Natural Resources John Laird claimed that the plan was not cost effective, since the smaller tunnel proposed by Portfolio would only save the state $3 billion. “Investing $3 billion in the most cost effective forms of water conservation and wastewater recycling would not come close to replacing the water supply lost as a result of reducing the size of the tunnels,” he wrote.

But last week Laird admitted the numbers he cited were incorrect: the smaller tunnel proposed by the Portfolio Alternative would actually be $6 billion cheaper (Laird had assumed there would be a dual-bore tunnel when in fact there would only be single tunnel). The state made a similar error in the administrative draft of the BDCP documents, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council.

The errors put into question some of the state’s other criticisms of the alternate plan, and some Northern California Congressional representatives are asking if BDCP is ready to move forward. “The state’s … error is unacceptable and emblematic of the BDCP’s deeply flawed process, one that lacks input from Delta stakeholders,” the members of Congress wrote. “It is an example of the risks of pushing through a plan without fully understanding the consequences or alternatives.”

The public will have a chance to see the BDCP’s first draft on December 13. It will be out for formal review for 120 days.


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