Ballot Measure May Derail California Water Project

By Carolyn Whetzel

Nov. 3 — A voter initiative that has qualified for California's 2016 statewide ballot could hamper a state and federal plan to build twin tunnels around the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta.

Called the “No Blank Check” initiative, the measure would amend the state's constitution to give voters a say on whether revenue bonds could be issued or sold to raise more than $2 billion to help finance public works projects like the $15 billion proposed California Water Fix.

The tunnels, each 30 miles long and as wide as a two-lane interstate, are needed to deliver water from the wetter northern part of the state to farms and cities in the dry south.

The California Secretary of State's office said Nov. 2 enough voter signatures had been gathered to place the measure on the ballot.

Dean A. Cortopassi, a Stockton, Calif., farmer and food processor, his wife and family foundation provided the $4 million reported to the state so far to finance the petition drive that gathered the nearly 933,000 signatures. The Cortopassis have been outspoken critics of the water project.

A coalition of labor, business, water, agricultural and other entities has been formed to defeat the No Blank Check initiative, which they said “threatens to significantly disrupt infrastructure development, jobs” and the state's economy.

The measure would do much more than block the much-needed retooling of the hub of California's water infrastructure, the coalition called Citizens to Protect California Infrastructure said in a Nov. 2 written statement.

“Our state is suffering from a massive backlog of essential needs across the state, including outdated water systems that are vulnerable to earthquakes, crumbling roads and bridges and overcrowded hospitals and universities,” California State Building and Construction Trades Council President Robbie Hunter said.

Tunnels Plan Scaled Back

Earlier this year, Gov. Jerry Brown and federal officials decided to scale back the twin tunnels plan, also called the Bay Delta Conservation Plan, after federal regulators said they would be unlikely to issue permits for the project. To try to win the federal permit, the project was redesigned. The delta restoration element was severed from the project and downsized.

Delta farmers and others still strongly oppose the project that some said would “hijack” water for industrial agriculture.

Meanwhile, the public comment period on the recirculated draft environmental document for the latest proposal ended Oct. 30.

Restore the Delta, a key group trying to block the project, said Oct. 30 that their opposition campaign had yielded 30,000 comments submitted from individuals and organizations against the tunnels plan.

The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, a water wholesaler that would help finance the project, said the state needs a solution “that works for the California economy and Delta environment.”

“We hope to be constructive participants to craft a final plan that has sufficient water supplies to merit this considerable investment while protecting the Delta's fragile environment,” MWD General Manager Jeffrey Kightlinger said in a written statement.

In an Oct. 30 joint statement, California Department of Resources Director Mark Cowin and David Murillo, the regional director of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, said they expect to gain valuable information from the public comments.

The comments will be published when the environmental analyses are finalized, as required under the California Environmental Quality Act and the National Environmental Policy Act, they said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Carolyn Whetzel in Los Angeles at cwhetzel@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Larry Pearl at lpearl@bna.com