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Keeping the tap flowing

Controversial plan would ensure Southern California's water supply, water officials say

Posted: December 29, 2013 2:00 a.m.
Updated: December 29, 2013 2:00 a.m.
A Castaic Lake Water Agency worker walks past a filter tank at the plant in August 2010. The agency delivers State Water Project water to the Santa Clarita Valley. A Castaic Lake Water Agency worker walks past a filter tank at the plant in August 2010. The agency delivers State Water Project water to the Santa Clarita Valley.
A Castaic Lake Water Agency worker walks past a filter tank at the plant in August 2010. The agency delivers State Water Project water to the Santa Clarita Valley.

First, pour yourself a glass of water from the tap.

Unless you’re on a private well, half that water in your glass came from Northern California, delivered south through the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta via the State Water Project and supplied to your home by Santa Clarita Valley’s water wholesaler, the Castaic Lake Water Agency.

The other half came from local water wells.

The problem with the Northern California water is the crumbling infrastructure that gets it to Southern California. That infrastructure — an aging complex of reservoirs, aqueducts, levees, power plants and pumping stations — endangers the reliability of the supply, local water officials say.

One significant earthquake affecting the infrastructure could leave Santa Clarita Valley residents with only half a glass of water, and many other Southern Californians high and dry.

State officials who spent the last seven years coming up with a better way to deliver northern water to Southern California unveiled a 9,000-page plan this month aimed at achieving just that. It’s called the Bay Delta Conservation Plan, and it performs a balancing act between the sometimes-conflicting goals of preserving the sensitive Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta ecosystem and getting clean water reliably to Southern California.

“The Bay Delta plan is sorely needed in Southern California,” said Dirk Marks, the Castaic Lake Water Agency’s water resources manager.

“In the nearer term, it would provide protection of the state’s water supplies,” Marks said. “A decent-sized earthquake in the Bay Area would cause multiple levee failures, and we would be cut off from water supplies for a year or more.”

As with most things involving water in California, the plan is attracting plenty of controversy. Some environmental groups are unhappy with it.

“We think the earthquake argument is a bogeyman issue,” said Nick Di Croce, spokesman for the Sacramento-based Environmental Water Caucus.

“It’s a scare tactic. The 1906 (San Francisco) Earthquake was about 6.9 on the Richter Scale, and it didn’t do a thing to the levees,” he said.

As for state promises to restore habitat for delta species, Di Croce calls the claim a “questionable strategy.”

“Their objective with the Bay Delta plan is to get more water out of the Delta,” he said, referring to water wholesalers — among them the Castaic Lake Water Agency — that contract with the state for State Water Project water.

Price tag
Another controversy involves the price of the project. When state officials released their draft plan for public review on Dec. 10, it had a preliminary price tag of $24.7 billion.

But by last week, cost estimates were already higher. One report put the project’s cost at between $51 billion and $67 billion due largely to long-term financing expenses.

Department of Water Resources Director Mark Cowin confirmed the estimates were accurate, but said the state expects public water districts that would benefit most from the project — such as the Castaic Lake Water Agency — to shoulder 70 percent of the costs. State-issued bonds would also be part of the financing.

The revised estimates assume it would cost $18 billion to build water diversion tunnels and another $9 million to restore 147,000 acres of wetlands and other habitat. The rest of the price tag would go toward interest on bonds issued for 30 years at a rate of 5 percent and other financing costs.

The project
Currently, the State Water Project and Central Valley Project pump water from the Delta to 25 million people and three million acres of farmland.

The system actually runs water through the Delta, a freshwater-saltwater environment where the southward-bound water picks up salt and pollutants from adjoining agricultural land.

That water supply is also sometimes interrupted as salmon and smelt numbers decline in the Delta and federal regulators limited the amount of water that can be pumped from the Delta in a bid to protect the fish.

Water officials believe creating an alternative delivery method from the pumps — and restoring more than 100,000 acres of new habitat above ground — will help the fish rebound and keep the water flowing to customers.

The Bay Delta Conservation Plan calls for two 30-mile underground tunnels to bypass the Delta and ensure stable water delivery. The tunnels would have the capacity to move 9,000 cubic feet per second of water. Construction is expected to begin in 2017.

The tunnels would bypass the levees where salt water mixes with fresh and where the threat of failure due to earthquake or flooding is highest.

The project, if approved and built, would offer the added benefit of delivering cleaner water to Southern California.

Among the pollutants that would be reduced is chloride, the contaminant that Santa Clarita Valley residents will be paying millions of dollars to remove from water in the Santa Clara River.

Terry Erlewine, general manager for the State Water Contractors, says the need for a new means of conveying water southward is indisputable.

“There is huge risk to water,” he said of the potential for an earthquake or other causes of failure in the complex State Water Project infrastructure, some of which dates back to the early 1900s.

“California needs to modernize its water delivery system to protect its economy and environment,” agreed Dan Masnada, general manager of the Castaic Lake Water Agency.

The Bay Delta Conservation Plan and its accompanying environmental impact report is available for public review through April and can be found at

Erlewine is expected to speak about the implications of the Bay Delta Conservation Plan at a Santa Clarita Valley Industry Association luncheon at 11:30 a.m. Jan. 21 at the Valencia Country Club.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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