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Southern California water agencies press ambitious plan to remake Sacramento Delta

The California Department of Water Resources begins taking public comments Friday on plans for its most ambitious water project ever. 

It wants to restore the ecosystem of the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, commonly known as the Bay Delta, while re-plumbing how Southern California gets much of its water. And ratepayers here could foot much of the project’s $25 billion dollar tab.

A third of Southern California's water comes from a place most of us probably can't find on a map. Sixty miles southwest of the state capital, the Bay Delta is where the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers merge, and where water from the north of the state mixes with water that meets the San Francisco Bay. 

This is the crux of California’s water system, and it’s broken.

Subsidence, Diversion and Development

For one thing, the Delta is sinking. Bryan Brock is a Department of Water Resources engineer. I recently meet him on Twitchell Island – a bowl of land where the level of the surrounding water is actually above our heads, kept at bay by earthen levees.

“It’s probably about a 35-40 foot differential right there,” Brock said, pointing to the top of the levee.

Tides used to ebb and flow in the Delta's marshes. Then people drained the land for farming. The soil shrinks down several inches a year, raising pressure on the levees and the risk that the system will fail.

“So it’s really impressive when you get a cargo ship going up the San Joaquin Deepwater Channel, and you’re thinking, man I hope this levee holds,” Brock said.

The lack of water causing subsidence also has an environmental toll.

Wetlands and tidal habitats have vanished; now salmon and dozens of other species struggle for survival, said Chuck Bonham, the head of California’s Department of Fish and Wildlife.

“Science is pretty clear that the delta itself is one of the most degraded landscapes at an estuary-wetland level in the nation,” he said.

Finding accord in the Bay-Delta

Decades of fights among government and water agencies, environmentalists and farmers, in courtrooms and conference rooms have brought California to this place. The so-called Bay Delta Conservation Plan has two "co-equal" goals that are kind of at odds -- restoring the ecosystem while protecting water deliveries to Central Valley farms and Southern California’s growing population. 

For Governor Jerry Brown, the Delta’s been a top priority since he took office. Last year he put it bluntly.

“I just want to get s--t done,” he said. “And I want to get this thing done the best I can, alright?”

The Bay Delta Conservation Plan has landed with a thud this week, 35,000 pages long. Its centerpiece is twin tunnels, 30 miles long, that would feed river water from just above Sacramento, underneath the Delta, south to pumps that would send the water south.

"We aren't looking for more imported water"

Southern California and the Central Valley would be the main beneficiaries of that water, but a promotional video says this isn’t a water grab.

Bay Delta Conservation Plan Video

The Metropolitan Water District is a leading supporter of the plan in Southern California. It's a wholesaler that sells Bay Delta water to 28 municipalities and local agencies, including the LA DWP. 

MWD general manager Jeff Kightlinger said the plan won't mean more water for Southern California, but maintain what the region is already getting.

“We aren’t looking for more imported water,” Kightlinger said.

Instead, the point is to make water supplies reliable, he says.

Nearly 70 percent of the project’s cost would fall on Metropolitan and other water contractors. In the Central Valley that includes powerful corporate farming interests like Westlands Water District.

Cities and farmers are currently negotiating behind closed doors to sort who would pay what.  

“Urban Southern California will certainly pay for its fair share,” Kightlinger said. “But we’re not going to pay for more than its fair share.”

Southern California's fair share

For most local ratepayers, that probably means an additional $5 a month on utility bills for decades.

But Jonas Minton with the Sacramento-based Planning and Conservation League says that number’s a fantasy.

He’s part of a broad coalition of environmentalists and Delta area activists who say it’s too soon to know how much the additional cost will be because the project is still in its early planning stages. 

“That is nuts,” Minton says.

He warns ratepayers will grow weary of repeated rate hikes to keep up with costs.

“There’s only so much people can pay and are willing to pay,” he says.

The project’s backers counter there’s plenty of time to work out these issues. The public comment period remains open for 120 days. Then the finalized project goes to state agencies, including the Department of Fish and Wildlife, for permitting. There’s a long process for this big project before the first shovel of dirt gets turned.