California's Water Tunnel Grows More Controversial

It's set to cost an estimated $20B, though city officials say benefits will be worth double
By Arden Dier,  Newser Staff
Posted May 17, 2024 1:43 PM CDT
Add to California's Water Tunnel Controversy: the $20B Cost
In this aerial drone photo provided by the California Department of Water Resources, the primary pump in the foreground is part of a groundwater recharge project designed to capture excess flow for groundwater storage in Fresno County on March 13, 2023.   (Andrew Innerarity/California Department of Water Resources via AP, File)

The tunnel is designed to capture and store more rainwater in California in anticipation of long periods of drought and the dangerously low water levels drought brings. The cost, however, is hard to swallow. Gov. Gavin Newsom's administration said Thursday that the proposed tunnel beneath the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, offering a second way to move water into the State Water Project, which supplies drinking water to 27 million people, would cost $20.1 billion, up from the $16 billion estimated in 2020, per the Los Angeles Times. City officials, who attribute the rising cost to inflation, say it's worth paying so the state can prepare for drought exacerbated by climate change.

State officials predict deliveries from the State Water Project will decline 22% by 2070 due to climate change, the Washington Post reports. They also warn the existing infrastructure that draws water into State Water Project aqueducts are vulnerable to sea-level rise. An analysis commission by the state determined the tunnel—45 miles long, 36 feet wide, and capable of carrying more than 161 million gallons of water per hour, including excess rainwater dropped during the rainy season—would bring $38 billion in benefits, "mostly because of an increased water supply that would be better protected from natural disasters like earthquakes," per the Post. Still, "the tunnel remains one of the most controversial projects in recent memory," subject of numerous lawsuits from environmental and Indigenous groups.

The cost, split between 29 local public water agencies, will ultimately come from customers, per the Post. And some opponents argue the cost analysis is actually an underestimate, per the Times. Then there are environmental concerns for the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta ecosystem, long considered compromised. Thursday's analysis refers to lost agricultural land and reduced water quality, plus impacts on air quality, transportation, and noise. Some residents in the state's interior, meanwhile, see the tunnel "as yet another attempt by Southern California to steal their water" and move it south, per the Post. State officials counter that without the tunnel, the state's water supply will remain inconstant and vulnerable to weather extremes. (More California stories.)

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