Sacramento–San Joaquin River Delta
Water and farmland in the Sacramento–San Joaquin River Delta. Courtesy San Diego County Water Authority

State water officials announced Wednesday they will pursue staged construction of a proposed multibillion-dollar water-delivery project, leaving water agencies in Southern California to decide if they want to continue supporting the effort.

The $16.3 billion project, known as California WaterFix, would divert water from the Sacramento River as it enters the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and carry it to existing federal and state pumping stations in the southern part of the delta through two 35-mile tunnels.

But in the face of funding shortfalls, state Department of Water Resources Director Karla Nemeth announced Wednesday the agency plans to pursue a staged construction approach, building only one tunnel initially, along with two intakes with a total capacity of 6,000 cubic-feet per second.

“Being prepared to implement this option is directly responsive to the stated needs of the participating agencies, and would align project implementation with current funding commitments,” Nemeth said. “It would also allow us to take significant steps toward improving environmental conditions.”

In October, the board of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, the region’s wholesale water supplier, voted to commit about $4.3 billion toward the project. The agency’s support was considered key to the project’s success.

But with overall funding still falling short, the agency will have to consider whether it wants to financially support the staged approach.

“By staging California WaterFix, the state can tap the critical mass and support it has to move forward with an initial phase that modernizes the water system in the Delta by designing and constructing one tunnel and two intakes,” MWD General Manager Jeffrey Kightlinger said. “Metropolitan continues to explore pathways that align cost and benefits and will work with our partners on a financing agreement. But the final decision regarding participation in the staged project will ultimately be made by our Board of Directors.”

It was unclear when that decision will be made.

Kightlinger noted that a staged approach to the project was not the original vision, but the agency recognizes that such a move is a result of “economic realities.” He also said the status quo is unacceptable, “and we must begin building the reliability the state needs.”

According to the state, moving ahead with a single first stage of the project would cost about $10.7 billion.

Charley Wilson, executive director of the nonprofit Southern California Water Coalition, called the proposed staged approach a “sensible approach to financing and constructing the project.”

“Maintaining the status quo would be foolish and short-sighted,” Wilson said. “Water is vital to our quality of life, and Southern California needs WaterFix to survive and thrive.”

Some environmental groups have opposed the project, including the Sierra Club and Food and Water Watch, which argue the tunnels could be harmful to the environment and not worth the cost.

Gov. Jerry Brown supports the project, saying it will help the environment by protecting fish and also securing a more reliable delivery system for the water.

— City News Service

Chris Jennewein

Chris Jennewein is Editor & Publisher of Times of San Diego.