Delta tunnels bill mandating voter approval advances

A California Assembly committee on Tuesday moved to force a public vote on a controversial water conveyance project.

The $15.5 billion plan to construct two massive water conveyance tunnels in the heart of California’s water circulatory system has driven the latest round of a decades-long battle over exporting water from wetter Northern California to more populous Southern California.


-Assemblywoman Susan Eggman, D-Stockton

Lawmakers representing the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta area, where signs opposing the project are ubiquitous features of the landscape, have clashed with a potent pro-tunnels coalition of business groups, organized labor and major urban and agricultural water importers. Backing a public vote were agricultural organizations and elected officials from Delta jurisdictions like Solano County, Contra Costa County, San Joaquin County and Sacramento County.

Assemblywoman Susan Eggman, D-Stockton, noted that voters previously given a chance to weigh in on a water conveyance proposal decisively rejected the Peripheral Canal in 1982. The tunnels should be no different, she said.

“Some projects have such statewide significance, and carry such a substantial price tag, that they warrant a statewide vote,” Eggman said. “Before construction can begin, the voters of California should have the final say.”

While Assembly Bill 1713 passed on a 8-2 vote, the minimum margin for success, it has little chance of winning Gov. Jerry Brown’s signature should it reach his desk. Brown has vocally defended the project, arguing opponents have failed to come up with a better way to shore up water deliveries and revive the Delta’s faltering ecosystem.

Cesar Diaz, a lobbyist for the State Building and Construction Trades Council who was among those to testify against Eggman’s bill, said it imposed an unreasonable standard on public infrastructure projects. He argued the tunnels already enjoy broad political support.

“We don’t agree on very much, but we do agree on this project,” Diaz said, referencing the business-labor alliance advocating the project.

Similar fault lines guided debate around Assembly Bill 2583, which would have thrown roadblocks in front of the tunnels by requiring more extensive environmental review and funding pledges from water agencies.

Lawmakers rejected that bill. Opponents representing water importers and organized labor argued it would drastically slow a project that has already been exhaustively reviewed, saying individual water agencies would effectively be able to veto the project.

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April 19, 2016 04:06 PM

Updated April 20, 2016 10:30 AM