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The Uncertain Future of Jerry Brown’s Delta Tunnels

October 29, 2017

In September of 2012, California Governor Jerry Brown signed assembly Bill 685 into law, which states “that every human being has the right to safe, clean, affordable, and accessible water adequate for human consumption, cooking, and sanitary purposes” and further that all state agencies have to consider Bill 685 when “revising, adopting, or establishing policies” related to the uses of water described.”[1] Bill 685 and other Brown water initiatives have only become more difficult to implement in the nearly 40 years since Brown took office for the first time (he also served from 1975 to 1983) as the population of California has nearly doubled in size (from 20 million to 38 million), largely in the southern part of the state. Unfortunately, most of the rain falls in the northern part of the state, which creates massive infrastructure needs for California in terms of the movement of water through aqueducts.


Jerry Brown’s father, Pat Brown (California governor from 1959 to 1967,) attempted to tackle this problem during his time in office when he worked to connect the Sacramento Delta to the farms of the San Joaquin Valley through a vast network of aqueducts. These aqueducts aided in the development of communities and farms in the southern portion of the state but they also wreaked havoc on the fragile ecosystem of the Delta [2].

Brown attempted to repair the pipes in his first term in office in the late 70s, but lost a statewide vote. Nearly 40 years on, once again Brown has found himself on a similar crusade with limited support and, as his final term comes to a close, limited time.

(Image: WaterFix, at a glance. Source: Earth First Journal) 

(Image: WaterFix, at a glance. Source: Earth First Journal)

What is the WaterFix Plan?

The fact that California’s water infrastructure is crumbling is not under debate. The debate is over how and what to fix. Brown’s solution – known as the “California Fix and Restore Project” or “California WaterFix” – is an extensive project that includes many pieces, but this article will focus on the most controversial and expensive part of the plan- the Delta Water Tunnels. In short, the Delta Water Tunnels project refers to the part of the WaterFix plan that would send Delta water from unincorporated Sacramento County down three brand new tunnels totaling 14 miles in length connected to existing infrastructure that would bring the water farther south [3].

(Image: Map of the Proposed WaterFix Tunnels Source: California Natural Resources Agency)(Image: Map of the Proposed WaterFix Tunnels
Source: California Natural Resources Agency)

Supporters of the tunnels such as that California Natural Resources Agency argue that, while water conservation and other water acquisition efforts deserve investment, they cannot be effective unless “the underlying water supply is reliable.” [4] Further, exhaustive government reviews have guaranteed that more native species will be harmed if current conditions continue than if the WaterFix plan is implemented [5]. They also argue that current infrastructure pieces are “vulnerable to disruption from earthquakes and climate change”.[6]

Opponents of the WaterFix plans, and more specifically the water tunnels, argue that the tunnels are a money grab by big agriculture intended to transfer “public wealth to private wealth”. They also argue that more of the water would be used for agricultural projects than drinking water, especially going to water intensive crops like cotton, almonds, and pistachios. Furthermore, they worry about the existing farms in the Delta region and what a water grab would mean for the water supply of those in the Delta [7].

(Image: The “Stop the Tunnels” Opposition includes farmers, fisherman, and environmental advo...

(Image: The “Stop the Tunnels” Opposition includes farmers, fisherman, and environmental advocates. Source: Red Green and Blue)

Who Will Foot the Bill?

The Brown administration estimates that the project will cost roughly $17 billion USD and proposes that the water districts that will benefit from the tunnels’ construction will split the cost amongst themselves [8]. Yet it is uncertain exactly if and how each water district would hand this down to the individual taxpayer. A 2014 analysis by the Los Angeles Office of Public Accountability estimated that the expected contribution would be approximately two dollars per household per month for households in the Los Angeles area [9]. However, as with many other tunnel boring projects of the past (see: Seattle’s Bertha project or Boston’s Big Dig), “estimates” often grossly underestimate final costs. The Los Angeles Office of Public Accountability’s estimate even included a 36% projected extra costs element in their calculations. But holistically, the cost to the average Californian would vary drastically based on whether said Californian lives in a water district that would benefit from the tunnels and how much of a proposed State Water Bond would go towards the tunnels project. Additionally, immeasurable costs exist for the communities that would be disrupted by the building of the tunnels.

Recent Developments

In July 2017, the tunnels won a symbolic victory when Governor Brown’s administration officially approved construction of the two 35-mile tunnels from the Sacramento River to existing aqueducts to bring water to Central Valley farmers and Southern California residents [9]. However, litigation from many Delta farmers is slowing the project down, making it unlikely for Governor Brown to get the tunnels started before the end of his term of office. The opposition’s suits rely heavily on the California Environmental Quality Act, known as CEQA, which has very stringent provisions protecting California’s natural habitats and waterways [10].

In September, Westlands Water District in the Central Valley voted 7-1 to disapprove the tunnels, noting that the project’s current iteration “‘doesn’t work for Westlands Water District,’ Board Member Todd Neves said” [11]. Westland’s two main complaints in Governor Brown’s plan are that currently, federally run districts such as the Central Valley Project do not have to pay, and that Sacramento should not impose “unreasonable” restrictions on how much water the district can draw from the river [12]. Many more districts will be voting on whether or not to approve the current proposal over the next few months, including Southern California’s vast Metropolitan Water District, which encompasses much of Los Angeles, Orange, San Bernardino, Riverside, and San Diego counties. In October, despite Los Angeles City Councilman Paul Koretz’s publicly stated opposition [13], the Metropolitan Water District Board Members approved $4.3 billion to be spent on the WaterFix [14]. Additionally, on October 12, the Kern County Water Agency approved paying 6.5% of the project’s $17-billion price tag [15]. Despite the recent approvals from local special districts, the remaining hurdles and impending lawsuits still make it hard to imagine the WaterFix happening in its current iteration for the next few years.

Future Options

With Governor Brown’s term ending in 2019, the fate of WaterFix in the long term is very much in the hands of his successor, whomever that may be. The top three candidates in the solidly blue state are former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, current Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom, and current State Treasurer John Chiang, none of whom publicly support the California WaterFix, with Chiang stating, “You can’t start building tunnels and further devastate the ecosystem of the Delta” [16]. But this does not mean that the WaterFix plan will be totally scrapped. Instead, the project may morph into an extension northward of the LA Aqueduct. But if the project were to go down that route, odds are good it would continue to be pushed back until a crisis occurs. In 2012, Governor Brown wanted to put an $11 billion bond to approve the Delta tunnels on the statewide ballot; however, a public education funding crisis necessitated the approval of Proposition 30, a school-related property tax. Putting two taxes on the ballot would have lowered the odds either would be approved, forcing Brown to put off the WaterFix project [17]. Therefore, the most feasible version of the tunnels probably consists of a scaled-down project whose budget would be manageable for local water districts, taxpayers, or a combination of the two.

All stakeholders, from ecologists to ranchers to politicians, agree a fix needs to be found before the aging Delta levees collapse or a severe drought reduces already limited access to water, but long-term solutions are extremely costly [18]. Because to a majority of Californians, access to water is not a life-or-death situation, temporary fixes to water crises will remain more plausible than long-term solutions that cost billions and billions of dollars. It is difficult to find people and districts willing to pay for a long-term project, and therefore, at the end of the day the question remains: who is willing to foot the bill?

Student Blog Disclaimer
  • The views expressed on the Student Blog are the author’s opinions and don’t necessarily represent the Wharton Public Policy Initiative’s strategies, recommendations, or opinions.


  [1] http://leginfo.legislature.ca.gov/faces/billNavClient.xhtml?bill_id=201120120AB685

  [2] https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2014/02/american-aqueduct-the-great-california-water-saga/284009/

  [3] https://s3.amazonaws.com/californiawater/pdfs/Draft_Final_DCE_Agreement_Combined.pdf (pg 8)

  [4] ibid.

  [5] http://www.mercurynews.com/2017/07/18/opinion-the-waterfix-twin-tunnel-plan-for-the-delta-is-needed-to-secure-our-water-supply/

  [6] http://www.sandiegouniontribune.com/opinion/commentary/sd-utbg-california-water-delta-tunnels-20170913-story.html

  [7] http://www.restorethedelta.org/101-save-the-delta-stop-the-tunnels/

  [8] http://www.dailynews.com/2017/10/09/17-billion-delta-water-tunnels-project-faces-critical-mwd-vote-tuesday-in-la/

  [9] http://www.mwdh2o.com/DocSvcsPubs/WaterFix/assets/waterfixdialogue_q-a.pdf

  [10] http://www.sacbee.com/news/state/california/water-and-drought/article162979533.html

  [11] http://www.latimes.com/local/lanow/la-me-westlands-tunnels-20170919-story.html

  [12] http://www.dailynews.com/2017/09/18/whos-going-to-pay-for-californias-giant-water-tunnels

  [13] http://www.sandiegouniontribune.com/news/california/la-me-ln-koretz-oppose-delta-20171006-story.html

  [14] http://www.latimes.com/local/lanow/la-me-mwd-tunnels-20171010-story.htm

  [15] http://www.latimes.com/local/lanow/la-me-kern-tunnels-20171012-story.html

  [16] http://www.latimes.com/politics/la-pol-sac-skelton-delta-tunnels-20170925-story.html

  [17] http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/boom.2013.3.3.68 (pg 74)

  [18] https://californiawaterblog.com/2017/08/13/california-waterfix-and-delta-smelt/


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