Clogged tunnels?

As Westlands Water District appears to pull out, cheers ring from Freeport to Rio Vista

This is an extended version of a story that appeared in the September 28, 2017, issue.

The water project that north Delta communities fear will end their way of life may have met its own ending, after the plan to finance it collapsed unexpectedly in a Central California boardroom last week.

News of the twin tunnels’ setback came September 20, when the Westlands Water District, which serves farms in Fresno and King counties, voted not to participate in financing its share of the $17 billion project. The WWD’s manager told the Sacramento Bee that signing on would cause too much monetary pain. The district was expected to pay roughly $3 billion.

Officially called the California WaterFix, Gov. Jerry Brown’s pet water project would install at least three massive, industrial intakes on the Sacramento River between Clarksburg and Courtland, extracting huge volumes of fresh water and channeling them through underground conveyors to central and southern California.

In addition to the scientific debate surrounding the project’s impacts on farming operations and fishing businesses throughout the Delta, an SN&R review of state documents found previously unreported environmental impacts that could turn the Delta into “a saltwater marsh.” These include major air, sound, traffic, groundwater and seismic impacts for towns from Freeport to Isleton. (Read “Why save the Delta?” Feature, August 31, 2017.)

Some reclamation experts believe the cost of the tunnels will actually be much higher than $17 billion, especially if the myriad lawsuits pending against the tunnels result in mitigation orders.

A spokesman for the governor issued a statement last week that California Waterfix is not dead, but didn’t elaborate. However, everyone from Metropolitan Water District Manager Jeff Knightlinger to CALmatters political commentator Dan Walters declared the loss of a major investor a potentially fatal blow for the tunnels.

Some north Delta residents feel there’s too much big money and political cache already invested in the project to believe it won’t happen.

“We’ve got guarded optimism, with a plus sign,” said Tim Newharth, a Courtland pear farmer and owner of the restaurant Steamboat Landing. “But we know the governor still sees it as a viable project. We know it’s still out there.”

Barbara Daly, a Clarksburg librarian and owner of Delta Heartbeats Tours, agreed. “We’re still skeptical and will not let down our guard or stop the fight,” Daly told SN&R. “It’s still on! There’s no comment out of Gov. Brown’s office, and we won’t shut up.”