Bidding in secret

Officials quietly solicit contracts on ‘twin tunnels’ project despite lawsuits, lack of permits

The town of Courtland, on the Delta, fears the twin tunnels could decimate its community.

The town of Courtland, on the Delta, fears the twin tunnels could decimate its community.

photo by scott thomas anderson

Opponents of the embattled “twin tunnels” project in the Delta were breathing a sigh of relief last fall when a $3 billion hole was suddenly blown into its financing scheme. Nevertheless, in December, California officials quietly opened a construction bidding process on the conveyance system—despite the missing funding, the project’s lack of permits, dozens of pending lawsuits, 90 percent of needed design work, a damning state auditor’s analysis, and the fact that environmental impact hearings on the tunnels haven’t taken place yet.

California officials didn’t announce they were now soliciting contracts to any media, but rather went with the minimal legal requirement of notification on an obscure state website.

Officially known as California WaterFix, the twin tunnels project would take a huge volume of fresh water from the north Delta and divert it primarily to an arid agricultural industry south of Fresno.

Conservationists and independent scientists have predicted catastrophic effects on the Delta if the project is built—the result of salt water incursions moving up the estuary from the Bay. That development alone could put farmers, fishers and marina owners out of business from Freeport to Isleton, and kill much of Sacramento County’s annual $507 million agricultural economy.

State scientists deny this will happen.

In August, N&R analysis of the twin tunnels’ 40,000-page environmental impact report (EIR) revealed additional impacts from 14 years of nonstop construction, including massive excavation, deep dredging, steel pile-driving, the razing of historic homes, the draining of ground wells, and hundreds of heavy diesel trucks rolling across 90-year-old bridges every day for over a decade. The EIR’s graphics indicate that the north Delta’s bucolic riverbanks and sloughs will become a permanent industrial zone.

Tunnel foes saw a ray of hope in September when the Westlands Water District unexpectedly voted not to help fund the project, creating an estimated $3 billion shortfall in its budget.

But then, on Dec. 6, the Department of Water Resources held what it called “a California WaterFix Industry Day” at the Sheraton Grand Hotel in Sacramento—and put the event on in conjunction with Metropolitan Water District, one of the largest beneficiaries of the tunnels. Standing in front of some 250 drilling and construction contractors, DWR Director Grant Davis said the state was now accepting requests for proposals for a project he estimated was about a year from breaking ground.

“That certainly has a nice ring to it, doesn’t it?” Grant told the contractors and consultants in the audience. “I see a lot of people nodding—bidding opportunities.”

The next presentation came from WaterFix program manager Chuck Gardner, whose PowerPoint presentation hinted at the construction boom by referring to “a mega-tunnel project.”

That was echoed by the management team’s John Bednarski, who said the tunnels will equal “massive construction efforts taking place.” Bednarski said the bidding processing was starting the next day. His presentation acknowledged only four of the 11 major state and federal permits for the tunnels have been approved. The design of the tunnels and their Herculean intakes is only 5 percent complete, officials also conceded.

During a question-and-answer session, Department of Water Resources contract specialist Nikki Hatcher admitted her department had not notified or advertised the opening of the bidding process in any media, but rather posted the news on the Cal eProcure website, which is a different website than the state’s official California WaterFix site.

“I haven’t heard of the website before,” said Barbara Daly of North Delta CARES, a nonprofit watchdog group that opposes the tunnels.

Responding to an inquiry from the N&R, DWR spokeswoman Erin Mellon wrote in an email that a general timeline for bidding on the project’s construction is posted on the official WaterFix website. However, the graphic that Mellon referred to only notes that the proposals process is slated for some time within a year.

Daly stressed that specific notification about the bidding process to media is important—or at least having it spelled out on the state’s official website—because many Californians think the project is on hold. That’s because of an array of lawsuits over eminent domain, business loss and environmental impact, as well as the missing $3 billion in funds and a recent state auditor’s report decrying the project’s skyrocketing costs.

The state Water Resources Control Board also hasn’t yet held hearings on recreational and environmental impacts from the tunnels project.

“Now they’re signing all of these contracts, but what will happen if the project doesn’t move forward and the contracts are broken?” Daly asked. “Are the California taxpayers going to be liable?”