California Tunnels Project Circling the Drain After Elections (Corrected)

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By David Schultz

This month’s elections may have mortally wounded California’s chances for a long-delayed $23 billion water tunnel project.

The so-called Delta Tunnels project would allow the Golden State to more efficiently transfer up to 1.6 trillion gallons of water every year from the northern part of the state to the south.

The project’s biggest cheerleader, Gov. Jerry Brown (D), is leaving office because of term limits and his successor, Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom (D), lacks’ Brown’s enthusiasm for the tunnels.

Additionally, several lawmakers from Southern California, the main beneficiary of the Delta Tunnels project, will be gone next year, either retiring or losing their seats.

Some of the congressmen-elect from Southern California don’t think the tunnels project is a good idea. But even those who do will be freshmen who may not have the same clout in the House to get their policy riders included onto larger bills.

Goodbye Governor

Even before his second tenure in the governor’s mansion, Brown had been pushing the plan to build two 30-mile long tunnels underneath California’s Bay Delta. He saw it as a permanent fix to the dwindling water supplies of Southern California, especially parts of Central Valley.

The tunnels are meant to help water flow more efficiently where it’s most needed, but environmentalists worry they could also deprive the Bay Delta of the freshwater it needs to support fish, birds, and other aquatic life. Additionally, some Northern Californians see it as a blatant attempt by their southern neighbors to take their natural resources.

Nathan Monroe, a political science professor at the University of California, Merced, said he believes Brown’s departure will be the final death blow to the Delta Tunnels project.

“If I had to bet, I’d say it’s not going to go forward either way,” Monroe told Bloomberg Environment.

Newsom’s campaign didn’t respond to questions from Bloomberg Environment. But he told a Los Angeles Times columnist earlier this year that, while the Delta’s current status quo “is unacceptable,” he supports scaling the project back to a single tunnel.

Protecting the Project

If Newsom does decide the tunnels project is worth fighting for, Monroe said, Southern California will then feel the absence of its veteran congressmen. That’s because lawmakers with more seniority would be in a better position to attach riders to larger bills that could protect the project, he said.

At least five Southern California lawmakers will be departing: Reps. Darrell Issa (R) and Ed Royce (R), who are retiring, and Reps. Steve Knight (R), Jeff Denham (R), and Dana Rohrabacher (R), who lost their re-election campaigns.

Additionally, they may be joined by Rep. Mimi Walters (R), whose race remained too close to call as of midday Nov. 14.

Back in California

In California, state agencies are operating as though the tunnels project is still moving full steam ahead.

California is still working to secure financing and obtain state and federal permits, Lisa Lien-Mager, a spokeswoman with the state’s Natural Resource Agency, said.

California is looking forward to building the tunnels to “fix a significant infrastructure and environmental problem,” she told Bloomberg Environment.

—With assistance from Emily C. Dooley.

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