Moving numbers

Delta Conveyance Finance Authority board member called a story about the twin tunnels’ cost ‘false news’—until SN&R showed him a letter from his own director

A California Public Records Act request filed by SN&R and other news agencies has revealed that the cost for Gov. Jerry Brown’s embattled Delta tunnels project jumped more than $2 billion in the last two months. Nevertheless, one of the directors for the agency that was recently formed to plug its multibillion-dollar funding gap called that revelation “false news” during a public meeting Aug. 16.

That director recanted his statement, after the cameras were off, when SN&R showed him official documents from his own agency proving the new $19.9 billion estimate was real.

Gary Kremen, a board member of the Delta Conveyance Finance Authority, casts his media aspersions during his organization’s last meeting at the Sacramento Public Library. The DCFA was formed in July to search for a way pay for the California WaterFix, better known as the twin tunnels, after Westland Water District voted not to support it, leaving a $3 billion funding deficit.

Despite the fact that many of Cal WaterFix’s permits have not yet been issued and there are scores of pending lawsuits against it due to fears it will collapse the Delta’s ecosystem and shutter some of its towns, Brown formed the DCFA to keep his legacy project moving ahead. The DCFA plans to make up the funding gap through strategic investments and debt obligations. All five of its members, including Kremen, are on boards or management of water districts that will get more flow from the Delta if the tunnels are built.

In mid-August, SN&R obtained an official letter from the DCFA’s executive director, Brian Thomas, to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which states the organization is seeking a $1.6 billion loan from the federal government. In the letter, Thomas puts the project’s latest price tag at $19.9 billion, rather than the $16.3 billion state officials were using just months ago when the boards for various water agencies voted to support it.

On the morning of the DCFA’s last meeting, The Brentwood Press broke the story about the tunnels’ new price tag, quickly followed by The Sacramento Bee. Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla, executive director for Restore the Delta, blasted the DCFA’s board during public comment for not posting Thomas’s letter on its website.

“You’re a public agency and that material should have been made public,” Barrigan-Parrilla said. “That letter also states that no federal money has been used on the project’s planning process, however, a state auditor’s report found that $84 million of federal money had been used. So, are you going to pay that money back, or are you going to correct and re-submit your letter?”

The DCFA’s board and staff did not respond to her, though Kremen, speaking into his microphone, called The Bee and Brentwood Press reports “false news.” After the meeting, SN&R showed Kremen the letter from organization’s executive director that clearly prices the tunnels at $19.9 billion. Kremen, who had just voted on the DCFA’s operating budget and debt management policy, told SN&R he had never seen that figure before. He reluctantly acknowledged the figure was authentic.

Sacramento District 5 Supervisor Don Nottoli, a vocal opponent of Cal WaterFix, said Californians are fooling themselves if they think the tunnels’ price tag will stop at $20 billion.

“I’m not surprised about these new estimates,” Notoli told SN&R. “It’s a mega-project that has so many unknowns. When it comes to something of this scale, we knew that the old number of $17 billion was just a down payment.”