The Sacramento-San Joaquin Bay Delta / Photo by Ry Rivard

Southern California water officials and members of Gov. Jerry Brown’s administration worried last year that the next governor would kill their $17 billion plan to build two tunnels to carry water south from Northern California.

Rightly so.

Gov. Gavin Newsom officially killed the twin tunnels plan last week. He’d announced that decision in February during his State of the State address, but his administration on Thursday withdrew the proposed permits, killing the project.

His administration said in a press release that it “will” build one tunnel, instead of two.

The “will” is a word to watch. The safest bet about what will happen with this project is nothing.

At times, it looked like the tunnels were close to a done deal. At one point, the board of Southern California’s largest water agency voted to spend $11 billion on the project. Then, because the agency may have violated open meetings laws, the board had to revote. Again, it supported the project. For a while, things looked like they were on track.

Now they’re not.

Just like the twin tunnels, the next project — a “smaller, single tunnel” — will face years of scrutiny, likely legal challenges and may die another unceremonious death.

Quick refresher: For years, water officials have talked about needing to shore up a system that delivers water across the state from the rivers running out of the Sierra Nevada mountains. The system pulls water from Northern California, through the delta formed by the convergence of the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers, into the Central Valley and finally down to Southern California.

The plans for a new “Delta Conveyance” have come and gone for decades. They include Brown’s “peripheral canal” that voters rejected in the ’80s, Gov. George Deukmejian’s “ditch,” the “Bay Delta Conservation Plan” during Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s tenure and then, finally, Brown’s second go at it, known as “California WaterFix.”

The basic fight has always been north vs. south. Northern California feels that Southern California is stealing water. Southern California points out what Gov. Pat Brown saw when he created the original north-south water system — that most of the water is up there but most of the people are down here.

The battle lines have gotten a bit more complicated in recent years.

Water officials representing Los Angeles and San Diego were both skeptical of the tunnels. Both regions have or are working on their own expensive water supply projects, like stormwater and wastewater recycling, and aren’t crazy about paying for another multibillion-dollar project. The San Diego County Water Authority is also considering its own tunnel project to tap into water from the Colorado River. In a letter to the governor Monday, the Water Authority’s chairman called San Diego’s approach a “poster child” for the kind of projects the Newsom administration should support.

Critics of the two tunnels won a hidden victory when Newsom said his Northern California tunnel should be smaller. (In theory, one tunnel could carry nearly as much water as two, if the one tunnel was big enough.) If the single tunnel indeed can’t carry as much water, some water officials who supported two tunnels may not support one, because they won’t get as much bang for their buck.

That apparent truth led opponents of the tunnels to make two interesting, seemingly contradictory arguments. First, Southern California is going to take too much water if they build two tunnels. But, second, if there’s only one tunnel, they won’t take enough water for the project to be worth their while.

If there’s anything the critics and fans of the now-dead tunnels project can agree on, it’s that point.

Brett Barbre, one of the gung-ho advocates of the twin tunnels, made this point in a recent op-ed for the Orange County Register that criticized Newsom.

“It’s obvious that the O.J. jury spent more time considering the evidence than the governor when considering Twin Tunnels,” Barbre wrote. “He provided no details. Given that the logistics of acquiring land and developing it is pretty much the same for two tunnels as one, it makes no sense to ditch the second tunnel that’s been planned all along.”

What “will” happen? Only time will tell.

Former CPCU Head on Odd Deal: Can’t Remember

“I can hardly remember a damn thing” is how the former head of the California Public Utilities Commission responded to allegations that he may have orchestrated a deal that put San Diego electricity ratepayers on the hook to pay $280 million.

That quote comes from a story by the Union-Tribune’s Rob Nikolewski on the fate of a natural gas-fired power plant outside of Chula Vista that San Diego Gas & Electric may be forced to buy.

Why would the company be forced to buy a power plant? It’s thanks to a deal the CPUC approved when it was led by the now-infamous Michael Peevey. He’s the fellow who had secret talks in Poland with officials from Southern California Edison about who should pay for problems at the failed San Onofre nuclear power plant.

We looked into the gas-fired power plant deal last year, since it seemed so odd for SDG&E to be buying a gas-fired plant while California lawmakers are trying to curb fossil fuel use.

Back in 2003, SDG&E was trying to buy a separate gas plant – the Palomar Energy Center in Escondido – from another of its parent company’s subsidiaries. These sorts of affiliate transactions are supposed to come under heightened scrutiny from the CPUC because a company is essentially selling expensive projects to itself and expecting ratepayers to pick up the bill.

According to testimony given to the state Senate years later by a Sempra attorney, Peevey said he would approve the deal with one big string attached: SDG&E had to agree to also buy power from the Otay plant, which is owned by Texas-based energy company Calpine.

The Union-Tribune tried to pin down Peevey on whether he intervened in the Otay deal, but he ducked: “I just tell you flatly I don’t remember that at all. I’m not saying we didn’t have such a phone call … We wanted those power plants built because it looked like there was going to be a shortage of power in San Diego. It didn’t turn out that way but there was certainly no quid pro quo or anything of that type involved, to the best of my memory.”

Now, SDG&E and Calpine say they have reached a deal that will spare ratepayers. SDG&E will need to continue buying power from the plant, but it won’t have to buy the plant itself.

Still, a leading SDG&E critic is trying to block the deal, arguing that because the terms are shielded, they might not be as good as the companies are leading us to believe. SDG&E has accused the critic of trying to mislead the public.

In Other News

  • We should know this by now, but humans are killing most of the animals we cross paths with. Now, the United Nations finds we’re threatening 1million animal and plant species with extinction.
  • Contractors dredging the Oceanside harbor and putting sand onto the beach are running into grunion.  (Union-Tribune)
  • The San Diego Regional Water Quality Control Board will consider a new permit for the desalination plant in Carlsbad. The permit relates to the plant’s intake, which brings water into the plant to be desalted and made drinkable. We wrote about some of the issues around the permit in 2016. (California Water Boards)
  • Human-caused climate change can be detected in droughts during the early-1900s, according to a new study. The study’s researchers are careful to note these changes are small and not all droughts can be tied to climate change — a nuance making the researchers’ arguments that they found hints of change that long ago even more compelling. (Inside Climate News)
  • Some say “infrastructure bill,” some say “green new deal” — might a big public works project and a big environmental push be more similar than most partisans realize? (Vice)

Ry Rivard was formerly a reporter for Voice of San Diego. He wrote about water and power.

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