Santa Clara water board votes to support smaller version of $17 billion water tunnels project


The Santa Clara Valley Water District has said it will only contribute funds to new water transport tunnels supported by Governor Jerry Brown if the project is scaled down.

The water district board, which serves most of Silicon Valley, voted unanimously Oct. 17 to reject current plans for WaterFix, a $17 billion water tunnel project that has met resistance from environmentalists and landowners in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. The board will instead endorse a lower-cost, lower capacity version of the project.

The project includes the construction of two underground tunnels, each 35 miles long and 40 feet in diameter, to deliver water from farther north than current intake sites and bypass the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, a site that hosts endangered species.

“Two tunnels is too much,” said Gary Kremen, a director on the water district board, in an interview before the vote in which the board endorsed the idea of one tunnel.

This funding phase of the WaterFix project comes about seven months after Brown declared the end of a four-year drought, and some Californians, especially in the drier climates to the south, want to take measures that will ensure future water security.

The project will rely on funding from the special districts that receive water from both the federal and state water infrastructures, which compose about 55 and 45 percent of Delta water consumption respectively.

Westlands Water District, in central California, is the only agency in the federal infrastructure to vote on participation in WaterFix. It voted 7-1 against endorsing WaterFix in September — a move that eliminated roughly $3 billion of the project’s proposed funding and significantly changed the cost of buy-in for the other districts.

The water districts have approved, in total, about 40 percent of the $17 billion project bill — some by conditional or partial endorsement, some with very specific financial commitments and others with more vague requests to “continue the conversation,” according to WaterFix spokesperson Lisa Lien-Mager.

“Unfortunately, it’s not like a nice, neat package of information that’s emerged from [the water district votes],” Lien-Mager said. “But what we’re focused on is that… folks are agreeing they want to be part of this project.”

WaterFix is aimed at addressing several California water issues. The current infrastructure pumps water from a reservoir south of the Delta, redirecting some natural delta currents that fish species rely on for breeding and migration. The water entering the Delta from the San Joaquin River is also exposed to agricultural waste from the Central Valley that is later passed into the reservoir and pumped south.

California WaterFix proposes channeling water underground from the Sacramento River, north of the Delta, to the same water pumps, which would lower the amount of water needed from the Delta. It would also improve overall water quality for ratepayers and lessen the impact on endangered fish species.

Union members hold signs in support of WaterFix

Labor union members held signs in support of California WaterFix as one of their representatives spoke before the board. (Katlyn Alo/Peninsula Press)

The WaterFix tunnels would not mean more water for ratepayers to the south, but rather a steady water supply that the Department of Water Resources claims would be less vulnerable to sea level rise, drought and major earthquake damage.

That pitch — the same amount of water for a much higher price — has been a hard sell in some districts, in spite of the higher water quality and security.

According to the board chair, John Varela, both Governor Brown and Secretary of the California Natural Resources Agency John Laird have indicated in private conversations that the scope of the WaterFix project is open to further discussion.

“[WaterFix] should be downsized to meet the participants, as opposed to making it as big as possible,” Kremen said. “So, in a way, while it’s not negotiation, it’s [that] we want a project that’s sized appropriately.”

Find Santa Clara Valley Water District’s complete terms of conditional support for WaterFix below.