Poll finds few in favor of Delta tunnel project aimed at bolstering water imports to Southern California 

As top state water officials briefed lawmakers Tuesday on the status of the $37 billion Bay Delta Conservation Plan that includes construction of two large tunnels, a leading environmental organization released a public-opinion survey that shows only 10 percent of Californians approve of it.

Testifying before a joint hearing of the Assembly and Senate water committees, Doug Obegi of the Natural Resources Defense Council said the poll of 1,000 state voters found strong support for projects that invest in increasing local and regional water supplies, but little support for spending money to bolster water supplies imported from elsewhere in the state.

Asked specifically about approaches to address issues with the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, Obegi said 40 percent of voters prefer building no new major projects to move water from the delta; 45 percent support the idea of a smaller, less expensive tunnel that would complement local water conservation and recycling projects; and 10 percent support the two-tunnel project that is the preferred approach of Gov. Jerry Brown’s administration. The latter proposal is designed to improve water exports to Southern California.

The poll was conducted Feb. 1-9 by Fairbank, Maslin, Maullin, Metz & Associates, one of the state’s leading public-opinion research firms. It was commissioned by the NRDC, a leading advocate for what it calls a “portfolio approach” that would include a single delta tunnel that would supplement regional water recycling, reclamation and conservation programs.

The poll’s findings underscore the challenge facing state water officials as they move forward with a plan to address the twin goals of restoring badly degraded delta ecosystems while increasing the reliability of water exports that serve 25 million Californians and 750,000 acres of irrigated farmland.

It showed Californians consider the drought the single most critical issue facing the state and that three-quarters of voters say they are willing to pay higher water bills to finance projects to increase water supply.

The Bay Delta Plan, however, is a long-term project designed to ensure reliable water exports for decades to come. It would do nothing to immediately address the effects of the current drought.

Even if the tunnels were in place today, they would not provide immediate help.

“We would not be considering delivering more water this year with that infrastructure in place,” testified Mark Cowin, director of the Department of Water Resources, the agency that is now estimating it will be unable to deliver water from the delta this year. “We’re not going to drought-proof California.”

Cowin noted, however, that had the tunnels been in place during torrential late-December storms in 2012, the State Water Project could have released more water last year that could have been stored to help address drought impacts this year.

“The BDCP is the best and possibly only opportunity we have in a generation to invest in the delta to help future Californians,” he said.

NRDC Secretary John Laird said that while local projects are essential to California’s water supply, imported water from the delta is a baseline need for many communities.

“You can’t conserve, you can’t reuse unless you have the underlying reliability of supply,” he said. “The drought adds urgency to us in making sure we get the long-term plan right.”

The Bay Delta Conservation Plan and its draft environmental impact report were released late last year. The public comment period on the environmental impact report has been extended until June.

State Sen. Lois Wolk, D-Davis, a leading critic of the tunnel plan, noted that the cost of the tunnels, estimated at $25 billion, will be shouldered exclusively by State Water Project contractors, principally the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California and the Westlands Water District, which serves farms on the west side of the Central Valley.

She cited a recent analysis from the bond-rating firm Standard & Poor’s that pointed out those agencies would have to commit themselves to long-term debt that they would be responsible to repay regardless of the amount of water delivered.

Timm Herdt covers California state government and politics for the Ventura County Star.

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