Seeking Cost-Effective Solutions in the Bay-Delta

Issues in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Bay-Delta are heating up again as state officials try to manage one of the nation’s most complex environmental and water supply challenges.

Policy Principles Guide Water Authority

In 2012, the Water Authority’s Board of Directors adopted policy principles that reiterated its support for actions and projects that meet the co-equal goals of water supply reliability and environmental restoration. Those principles call for upgrades that are cost-effective, correctly sized and can secure long-term funding sources. They say that any fix should:

  • Support the co-equal goals of environmental restoration and water-supply reliability
  • Provide regulatory certainty and predictable supplies
  • Improve the water deliveries during wet years
  • Allocate costs based on the benefits received
  • Require a firm funding commitment by all parties
  • Support continued state ownership and operation of the State Water Project

Click here to read the full list of principles.

The Bay-Delta is the hub of the State Water Project, the nation’s largest state-built water conveyance system. That system has become less reliable as the environment has deteriorated. The multi-billion-dollar question is how best to sustainably meet the needs of water supply reliability for millions of Californians and the extensive ecosystem.

It might seem like a distant problem for San Diego County, but the region will be responsible for paying a substantial piece of any solution. San Diego County also has received significant amounts of water from the Bay-Delta historically, though the volumes have dwindled significantly due to regulatory constraints and the Water Authority’s successful plan to develop locally controlled, drought-proof water supplies.

State officials have proposed a project in the Bay-Delta known as California WaterFix that involves piping water supplies under the Bay-Delta in giant twin tunnels. It will cost at least $17 billion and the actual cost could be much higher if there are delays.

Should the WaterFix move ahead, the San Diego region would be responsible for a sizable part of the bill, likely more than the $1 billion it cost to develop the Carlsbad Desalination Project. The difference: The Claude “Bud” Lewis Carlsbad Desalination Plant has proven to be a reliable water source, while there’s no certainty about the amount of water that WaterFix would produce in any given year.

Over the past five years, the Water Authority has conducted one of the most exhaustive Bay Delta Conservation Plan reviews of any water agency in the state, with nearly three dozen public meetings on the topic. Without endorsing any specific project or proposal during this process, the Board of Directors heard from an array of Bay-Delta stakeholders and experts, including Delta community leaders and elected officials, farming interests, state agencies, independent economists, environmental groups and others. In addition, officials with the California Natural Resources Agency have been invited to discuss their latest proposal with the Water Authority's Board.

The Water Authority's long-standing questions include:

  • How big does the project need to be?
  • How much will it cost?
  • How much water will San Diego County receive?
  • What portion of the cost will San Diego County be obligated to pay?
  • Which agencies statewide will commit to paying for the WaterFix?
  • How will San Diego County ratepayers be protected if other funding doesn’t materialize?

At the Harvey O. Banks Pumping Plant near Stockton, giant pumps lift water from the Bay-Delta to the California Aqueduct.

The financing issue is particularly significant for San Diego County residents. The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California has said it will pay for about a quarter of the cost of a Bay-Delta fix. As one of MWD’s largest customers, the Water Authority would be expected to pay for a large share of those costs and that share could grow disproportionately large if other MWD member agencies decide the price is too high and further reduce their MWD water purchases in favor of other sources.

A similar dynamic also could develop at the state level. If one or more State Water Contractors that promise to pay for the project default on payment obligations, other contractors, including MWD, could be liable for bigger payments – and that in turn would boost water bills in San Diego County.


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