Will Gov. Jerry Brown’s Twin Tunnels project for the California Delta still make it into the $11 billion water bond projected for the November election? It’s still possible.

The bond has been postponed twice already because legislators didn’t think it would pass muster with voters in 2010 and 2012. But the ongoing state drought gives it more urgency this year.

The new wrinkle is that Republicans now are part of the negotiations because putting the bond on the November ballot requires a two-thirds vote of both houses of the Legislature. Democrats still have a two-thirds supermajority in the Assembly. But due to scandals that have suspended three Democratic senators earlier this year, that supermajority was lost in the Senate.

And Republicans from drought-stricken areas want the water the tunnels would convey. The GOP’s new point man in this legislative water war is state Sen. Andy Vidak of Hanford. Vidak said he would not vote for the proposed bond bill unless funding for conveyance is included.

By putting tunnels underground to convey water southward, a water highway interchange could be created that separates fish water and farm water for the first time, pleasing both environmentalists and farmers.

The public’s concern about the tunnels is mainly the final $15 billion cost.  Northern Californians say it is a “boondoggle” that will cost $67 billion. But that is with bond interest.

Water bonds are tax-exempt, which usually knocks about 2 percentage points off the bond interest rate. If the bond rate were the same as the inflation rate the state would be borrowing money for free. If the inflation rate were higher than the bond interest rate, then the state would be paying back less than $15 billion on the bond. Most investors consider 3 percent inflation a historical benchmark today.


But on Monday, two powerful Democratic legislators, State Sens. Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, and Lois Wolk, D-Davis, opposed the project on the Senate floor. Wolk cautioned that including the Twin Tunnels likely would lead voters to reject the bond.  Previous polls have found weak support for the project.

Wolk also was upset at Republicans changing their minds on including the Twin Tunnels in the bond, backing off from the previous agreed deal for the water bond without the tunnels. Wolk’s bond proposal includes three new dams, underground water storage and environmental re-creation of the Delta for fish.

Wolk openly told Republicans on the Senate floor, “At some point, you need to stick to your word. You ask for things and you … get what you want … and it’s time to say yes.”

But Republicans don’t have to say “yes.” The loss of the Democratic supermajority changed that.

And Republicans have been picking up legislative seats in Democratic strongholds in the Central Valley over the hot issue of “fish versus farmers.”

Bond monies would go for alternate water conveyance plan

Steinberg, the former Senate president pro tem, was interviewed on NBC TV News Los Angeles by Conan Nolan and said the tunnels have to stay out of the water bond to avoid a North-South water war.

Steinberg acknowledged that Brown and a majority of legislators favor of the tunnels. Surprisingly, Steinberg said, “Money [in the bond] will go to helping support the agenda of those who want to see some form of alternative conveyance built.  It’s how it’s done.”

Nolan was quick to retort, “The governor has not said whether or not he will support putting an alternative on the ballot for the water.”

Alternative plan

On June 22, Central California businessmen and farmers urged the state to abandon the current water tunnels part of the Water Plan for a less expensive plan called the Western Delta Intake Concept.  The proponent of the WDIC is water engineer Robert Pyke.

Bill Berryhill, a Stockton farmer and former Republican Assemblyman, supports Pyke’s conceptual plan. Berryhill has formed the Citizens Coalition for Delta Protection to try to get the Legislature to adopt Pyke’s concept.

But Pyke’s concept would do nothing to re-create uninterrupted fresh water fish flows for salmon from the San Joaquin River to the Bay Delta and ultimately the ocean. In 1982, voters defeated a ballot proposition to build the Peripheral Canal that today would be about half of the cost of the proposed tunnels.

The Senate has until Thursday to adopt the water bond or it will not appear on the November ballot in the middle of the drought.

Cross-posted at CalWatchDog.