The plan to overhaul the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta finally got an official price tag and it did nothing to assuage critics who don’t trust the numbers or the intentions of the project’s proponents.
The state estimates that constructing two tunnels from the Sacramento River beneath the delta, restoring the sensitive habitat and shoring up surrounding infrastructure will cost $24.7 billion. Construction of the giant tunnels and other facilities would cost $14.5 billion, maintenance would run $4.8 billion and habitat restoration would total $4.1 billion.
The Bay Delta Conservation Plan is meant to save the delta from ecological disaster while pumping out more water for shipment to farmers in central California and thirsty residents in the south. Supporters also see the project as a safeguard against catastrophic failure by the series of levees that protect the delta.
Skeptics think it’s a cynically deceptive water grab that will further degrade the delta. They fear the plan being presented will also encourage unsustainable agricultural practices near the delta, violate the Clean Air Act, kill recreation around the delta and get rid of incentives to fix levees.
Although the project has been under active consideration for nearly a decade, critics say there has never been a proper cost-benefit analysis, and that the latest blizzard of numbers is inadequate. Restore the Delta, a group that opposes Governor Jerry Brown’s plan, said the estimated cost of tunnel construction alone has tripled in the past three years.
The group says that Brown’s plan mainly benefits agricultural interests who would get more cheap water while ratepayers and taxpayers foot an ever-escalating bill. They would rather spend $2.4 billion to strengthen the levees, reduce the amount of water taken from the delta, route fresh water through the delta to help restore it, and increase local water supplies and improve water conservation.
Restore the Delta predicts the actual cost of Brown’s delta plan will be closer to $61.5 billion and that the costs will not be picked up by agricultural users, as advertised.
“It is simply too costly for agriculture to absorb,” according to Jeffrey Michael, director of the Business Forecasting Center at the University of the Pacific in Stockton. “Urban users will have to pick up a larger share of the cost than they have been told.”