San Joaquin Farm Bureau Federation

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By Craig W. Anderson

Will Gov. Jerry Brown's twin tunnels, the California WaterFix, his $17.1 billion legacy project survive improper taxpayer subsidies, the rejection of the plan by the Westlands Irrigation District and a proposal that required dozens of water agencies and millions of California taxpayers including farmers to help pay for it?

"The tunnel concept will probably change and morph into something different," said SJFB President Jim Ferrari. "There will be a plan B and a plan C because I doubt Gov. Brown will give it up."

Ferrari also said, "These recent troubling revelations may push him to negotiate."

State and feds both lied

State and federal agencies and officials have continually issued assurances that the $17.1 billion re-engineering of the state's North-to-South water system would be paid for by only the participating water districts and contractors. Also, the public was assured that no taxpayer dollars were used during the initial development phases of WaterFix.

However, a 2017 audit by the U.S. Department of the Interior's Inspector General discovered that at least $50 million was funneled to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation to pay the San Joaquin Valley districts for tunnel planning costs over seven years.

The audit said the Bureau used "a complex, obscure process that was not disclosed" to subsidize tunnel planning. "We found no evidence that USBR's subsidy was ever disclosed in annual budget justifications or financial reports, and USBR officials could not give a valid rationale for providing the subsidy."

$17.1 billion question

All of which gives rise to the question: If water contractors need secret financial help in the planning stage from the USBR, how can they be expected to pay $17.1 billion for the WaterFix?

"I wasn't too surprised by the chicanery and I don't think the chicanery's over yet," said David Simpson, SJFB water committee chair. "The Banta-Carbona Water District was required to participate in paying for WaterFix. Their cost for an acre foot now is $100 but it would go to $1,000 per acre foot if the district had to help pay for the tunnels." Banta-Carbona declared its opposition to the project by not participating in it.

Ag can't afford "fix"

Simpson said with the recent decline in San Joaquin County's ag production, agriculture can't afford this "fix." He also said, "Why not talk about increasing the water supply, things that would create more water, like raising Shasta Dam. There are a lot of different options rather than these tunnels. At some point we have to say enough is enough. Until we can increase the storage and water supply, the tunnels obviously make no sense."

Another audit?

According to Simpson the state is calling for another audit, due sometime in October, to counter the original audit. The state's excuse is, he said, "'We didn't provide the federal auditors with the correct information.'"

Outrageous scam

"This misuse of government funds is outrageous," said SJFB Executive Director Bruce Blodgett. "This process has been one scam after another from the beginning and it demonstrates that if Gov. Brown has to cheat to get this project going, he will." Audit no impediment?

Lisa Lien-Mager, a spokeswoman for Brown's Natural Resources agency, said, "I don't think the audit will impede the project in any way." Her viewpoint is not supported since the audit may have had an impact and influence in the decision by Westlands Irrigation District's board of directors via a 7-1 vote not to help pay for the tunnels. It is estimated Westlands' share would have been $3 billion.

"The Westlands vote was a promising step but we can't relax," Blodgett said. "Perhaps we can now talk about actual, workable solutions that include all Delta stakeholders." 

Westlands vital

Westlands' support for the tunnels was vital, according to Jeff Kightlinger, general manager of the giant Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, who said, "Absent Westlands, you don't have a [tunnels] project." 

Westlands directors said they were uncomfortable with the costs that would be borne by the 600 farming families in the district and the district estimate that its water's cost would soar from $100 per acre foot to more than $600 per acre foot.

Tunnel supporter's credibility shot

Supporters of the twin tunnels are now in a quandary: If their statements and assurances that only water districts that would use the water would pay for it and that using taxpayer dollars was out of the question and then secretly changing the requirements by adding dozens of water districts and millions of people to the list of those expected to pay for the tunnels…if all of this is public knowledge, what credence do Brown or water contractors or state agencies now have?

Not much, according to Blodgett, who said, "Those who planned and designed the twin tunnels project are delusional, their science disingenuous and their methods not above-board."

He said, "Westlands could be heavily lobbied now and taking some hits but they did what was absolutely right."

Alternatives

There are alternatives that would accomplish what the tunnels are advertised as doing, such as the Delta Corridors plan that wasn't given the same level of review as the tunnels concept because, Ferrari said, "It was preordained that the twin tunnels would be built," and Blodgett said, "It's comical that tunnel advocates are still saying they'll benefit the Delta's environment, wildlife, and fish and won't harm residents."

The tunnel fight continues

The SJFB triumvirate agreed that the battle's not over, that money and politics will ensure that Brown and company will return with something.

"Now, let's work together and figure out how to do it right!" Blodgett said. "More storage MUST be included in any future plan."

"The push remains to get the water out of the Delta and down south," Ferrari said. "The twin tunnels are ditched for now and the general public is learning more about how crooked the governor and this entire process is."

He added, "The project has slipped away from Brown's term of office and we'll have to deal with a new governor but Southern California needs water and will go to the limit to get it. That hasn't changed. But we're in a better position than we were a month ago."

"Whatever direction this goes in the future, it all starts with more storage," Simpson said. "And then send the water where it's needed."