A Fresh Chance to Achieve a Sustainable Water Future for CA

The water world has been abuzz this past week with confirmation that the proponents of the massive, twin tunnel water diversion project in the Delta (aka “WaterFix”) are redefining the project. 

This pivot was precipitated by the failure of proponents to attract funding anywhere near the $17 billion capital cost of the twin tunnels. But the existing proposal would also be catastrophic for the health of the estuary—and its salmon and other fisheries—by siphoning off more water than the freshwater-starved San Francisco Bay-Delta could sustain. The current effort to redefine the project presents an opportunity to correct these and other very serious problems with the twin tunnel plan.

The chance to correct fatal flaws?

As NRDC has emphasized for many years, how any tunnel plan would be operated is the key to determining its impacts on the health of the estuary and the communities and jobs that depend on it. While size matters, it is critical that WaterFix be operated to take less water from the Delta and improve flows into and through the estuary to restore its health. 

What could success for this project look like?  It would mean following the common-sense path that the Legislature and Governor Schwarzenegger laid out in the 2009 Delta Reform Act: 

  • Adhere to the co-equal goals for the Bay-Delta of “providing a more reliable water supply for California and protecting, restoring, and enhancing the Delta ecosystem... in a manner that protects and enhances the unique cultural, recreational, natural resource, and agricultural values of the Delta as an evolving place." (CA Water Code §85054);
  • Significantly reduce water diversions from the Delta, requiring the State Water Resources Control Board to complete its long-overdue update of the Bay-Delta Water Quality Control Plan before ruling on the water rights petition for WaterFix and incorporating those flow requirements as “appropriate Delta flow criteria” (CA Water Code §85086); and
  • Include significant financial investments in local water supply projects that “reduce reliance on the Delta in meeting California’s future water supply needs through a statewide strategy of investing in improved regional supplies, conservation, and water use efficiency” (CA Water Code §85021).   

These requirements highlight the need for any reconceived tunnel project to be considered in the context of alternative water investments and needs in California. A new fact sheet and the table below shows just a sampling of regional water projects that water districts are already pursuing that would yield more than a half a million acre-feet of new water supplies for half of the capital cost of the current twin tunnels proposal—far more new water than the Delta can or will supply in a snow-deficient, highly-variable, climate-changed future. And these investments do not destroy the livelihoods of Delta farmers, wipe out North Coast fishing communities, or increase the frequency of harmful algae blooms in the Delta, as the twin tunnels project would. Instead, they offer good-paying local jobs, reduced water pollution, and less vulnerability to the vagaries of drought and floods.

The frightening collapse of Oroville Dam’s spillway in 2017 has also highlighted the urgent need for billions of dollars of water infrastructure upgrades and maintenance needed in California.

But we simply can’t afford to pay for it all. 

Most of these investments will come from the pockets of water ratepayers in the form of higher water rates. Any revised tunnel proposal must be viewed through the lens of these competing investments and in light of an overall prioritization of water investments in the State to best achieve a sustainable water future.   


Water Supply Yield


Carson Regional Water Recycling Project

168,000 AF/year


$2.7 billion capital cost

$129M annual O&M cost

Pure Water San Diego (Phases 1, 2 and 3 of this project)

90,000 AF/year


$3 billion

Tillman Groundwater Replenishment Project

30,000 AF/year


$450M capital cost

$22M annual O&M Cost

Santa Clara Valley Water District – Expedited Purified Water Program

45,000 AF/year

$800M capital cost (2014 dollars)

$23.5M annual O&M cost

San Luis Reservoir Expansion Project – increase capacity by 130,000 acre feet

Up to 43,000 AF/year

$360M capital cost (2013 estimate)

Los Vaqueros Reservoir Expansion (from 160TAF to 275 TAF)

~ 41,000 AF/year on average for agricultural and urban water use and 46,000 AF/year for South of Delta wildlife refuges

$862M capital cost

$9.4M annual O&M costs, including pumping costs


South San Joaquin Irrigation District Irrigation Enhancement Project

73,000 AF/year

$325M capital cost

$8M annual O&M costs


536,000 AF/year

$8.5 Billion capital cost


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