An Alternative to the Tunnels 

A new report shows that taking toxic cropland out of production in the San Joaquin Valley would be much cheaper than the governor's tunnels plan.

Governor Jerry Brown is still pushing his plan to build two giant water tunnels underneath the fragile Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, despite the fact that his $15 billion proposal remains unpopular with California residents. Brown contends that the tunnels will provide a dependable water supply for farms in the San Joaquin Valley. But a new report released last week not only punches a hole in the governor's argument, it also offers an alternative solution that would be far cheaper than the tunnels plan.

One of the main beneficiaries of the proposed tunnels would be the powerful Westlands Water District in the arid western San Joaquin Valley. The district represents almond and pistachio growers and other agribusinesses that cultivate thirsty crops in desert-like conditions. The district and the growers who control it have been a driving force behind the tunnels plan.

However, one aspect of the proposal that doesn't get much press is the fact that a significant amount of cropland in the Westlands district has severe drainage problems and is contaminated with toxins, primarily selenium and boron. When growers irrigate the cropland, it results in toxic runoff that pollutes rivers, streams, and aquifers, and poisons wildlife. The tunnels, in other words, would likely deepen the ecological mess in the region by guaranteeing that more water from Northern California would be poured on hundreds of thousands of acres of toxic land.

But a report published last week by an Oregon-based firm, ECONorthwest, offers a simple alternative: Take a total of 343,000 acres of this land (of which 298,000 is in Westlands Water District) out of crop production and return it to its natural state. The retirement of the land not only would solve a serious environmental problem, but also would save about 454,000 acre-feet of water a year. To put that in perspective, the city of Los Angeles uses about 587,000 acre-feet of water each year.

"[L]arge swaths of land, primarily in the San Joaquin Valley, are unsuitable for agriculture," the ECONorthwest report concludes. "The soils in these naturally dry areas have high levels of salts, selenium and boron, trace elements that — when combined with irrigation water — can poison crops if allowed to remain on lands without proper drainage. Related problems include contaminated waterways, increased toxic runoff into the Delta, and deformities in birds and fish."

ECONorthwest is an independent economic analysis firm that was hired by three groups opposed to Governor Brown's tunnels plan (which is also known as the Bay Delta Conservation Plan, or BDCP): Food & Water Watch, California Water Impact Network, and Citizens Against Taxpayer Funding of the BDCP. ECONorthwest estimated that the total cost of buying and retiring the 343,000 acres would be about $750 million, although it could run as low as $540 million and as high as $1.03 billion.

Saving 454,000 acre-feet of water a year would likely relieve the need to build the tunnels, which are projected to cost up to $67 billion, when counting interest payments on the bonds needed to pay for construction. "Spending one billion dollars to take these selenium-laced, unsustainable lands out of production and cutting the water rights that go with them saves Californians water and money," said Adam Scow, California director of Food & Water Watch, in a statement. "Retiring these west side lands makes a lot more sense than spending $67 billion to build Governor Brown's outdated tunnels to support corporate agribusiness."

Taking the cropland out of production would require cooperation from the Obama administration, which has been in secret negotiations with Westlands over the district's debt to the federal government. Recent reports indicate that a proposed deal between the feds and Westlands would only retire about 100,000 acres, and in return, would forgive the district's $365 million debt to the federal government.

Westlands is perhaps the most politically powerful water agency in the nation. And spending $750 million to $1 billion in taxpayer funds to take cropland out of production likely will not be popular, especially among Republicans. But retiring land is much cheaper than building two giant water tunnels.

Although Westlands and other beneficiaries of the tunnels are supposed to pay for them, it's likely that they will not be able to afford to do so. As we noted in a 2014 cover story, some economic experts estimate that the costs to build the tunnels will be far higher than the financial benefits they will provide, and thus could force Westlands and the other beneficiaries into default (see "The Water Tunnel Boondoggle," 5/13/14). "The tunnels don't generate a water supply that's nearly as valuable as the costs," said Jeffrey Michael of the University of the Pacific, in an interview with the Express last year.

Michael is one of the leading economic forecasters in the state. In 2012, he projected that the tunnels would result in $6 billion in total losses for Westlands and the other beneficiaries. Last week, he revised his projection to $8 billion in losses. And if Westlands and the other beneficiaries eventually default on paying for the tunnels, then taxpayers likely would have to pay the bill, which could reach $67 billion. With those numbers, spending $1 billion on retiring land not only makes financial sense, but it's also a win for the environment.

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