Environment & Science

MWD's mega tunnels project: What could go wrong?

At Tuesday’s historic vote, representatives of Los Angeles and San Diego voted no on the twin tunnels plan for the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. It’s unclear the extent to which opposition from Los Angeles and San Diego could undermine the progress of the project.
At Tuesday’s historic vote, representatives of Los Angeles and San Diego voted no on the twin tunnels plan for the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. It’s unclear the extent to which opposition from Los Angeles and San Diego could undermine the progress of the project.
Mae Ryan/KPCC file photo

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The big vote is over.

The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California said yes this week to funding the lion’s share of a $17 billion project to divert water under the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta in Northern California. Officials at the nation's largest water agency say the project is necessary to provide a steady supply of imported water to thirsty, growing Southern California. 

Though the vote was months in the making, it might have been the easy part. 

What's next?

A series of obstacles could inflate the costs, upend the 15-year construction timeline or perhaps stop the project in its tracks completely. They include legal challenges, a change in political leadership and cold feet among partner agencies.

MWD General Manager Jeffrey Kightlinger said the biggest risks facing the twin tunnels project are things his agency can't control, like a change in political priorities once Gov. Jerry Brown leaves office and his pet legacy project behind.

“We have new politics that will come into the fray. So politics is a big part of it," Kightlinger said. "And when something is divisive [as water], it's north against south, ag versus urban, environmentalists versus developers.”

“We're going to have this battle over and over again in the political arena. Our job is to navigate through it and keep the project moving forward,” he said.

How did the vote go?

At Tuesday’s historic vote, representatives of Los Angeles and San Diego voted no on the twin tunnels plan. They were in the minority, but they are important stakeholders representing about 37 percent of the MWD service area. It’s unclear the extent to which that opposition could undermine the progress of the project.

One change that the agency has not budgeted is a possible change in the price of steel should Trump Administration tariff policies make the material more expensive.Physical disasters like earthquake or a flood could also stall the project, Kightlinger said.

“All those are challenges you know are possible. And so you sort of prepare for them, but you can't predict them either,” he said.

He’s expecting new legal attacks on top of the litigation and challenges to permits the project needs from state and federal entities.

“We know that’s coming, and it’s a real challenge,” he said.

What are the objections?

The Delta tunnels project, already facing legal and regulatory challenges, is ripe for new litigation, said Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla. She's the executive director of Restore the Bay, an environmental and community group that opposes the project.

The broad scope of MWD’s expected financing of the portion of the project that Central Valley farmers refused to underwrite is a source of one likely new challenge, she said.

The MWD plan, she said, forces Southern California ratepayers to support water infrastructure that benefits Central Valley farmers and others far beyond MWD’s service area. That is a potential violation of California’s Proposition 218, which limits new fees and taxes imposed without voter approval, Barrigan-Parrilla said.

“There are going to be dozens of lawsuits over various subject matters that will be hurdles before this project really to move forward,” she said.

Others will look to protect the water quality left in the Delta if water from the Sacramento River is captured for the tunnels. The impact of construction on air quality, and the impact on fish and wildlife is another, she said.

The MWD imports Colorado River and Northern California water to Southern California and resells it to other water agencies who sell to individual businesses and homes. About one-third of the water used in its service area from the Inland Empire to Oxnard to San Diego comes from the Bay Delta through the State Water Project canal.

Right now, the water is pulled into the canal from intakes at the south end of the Delta. That has caused ecological damage to fish in the delta, and even caused a reverse of the normal seaward flow of the water and an increase in the salinity of the Delta. To fix the problem and to create a more secure and abundant flow of water, the tunnels project would collect water at the north end of the Delta and move it in large tunnels 35 miles under the Delta to the start of the State Water Project and the Central Valley canals.

If built on schedule, the first water deliveries through the tunnels would start in about 15 years.

The Iron Law of Megaprojects

Bent Flyvbjerg, professor and founding chair of Major Programme Management at Said Business School did some much-quoted research into common reasons for mega projects to fail. He calls it the “Iron Law of Megaprojects": over budget, over time, over and over again.

He says megaprojects – those costing a billion dollars and more – are inherently risky due to their complexity and long planning timelines. Cost overruns of more than 50 percent are common. Read more of Flyybjerg’s analysis here.

Cost overruns and delays are the most likely problems a high-risk project like the delta tunnels will face during their 15-year construction timeline, said Hank Koffman, director of USC’s Construction Engineering And Management Program.

He sees the two tunnels as a more effective option than a single tunnel and said California need the project.

"The problem is, when we get these mega projects, they really are the state of the art and one of a kind, and we really don't have much of an experience factor in this,” Koffman said.

Tunnelling is the riskiest sort of construction, he said.

“We don’t know really what’s underground. We could take borings and identify the rock formation or the type of soil we're going through. But that's spotty because geological formations can change within a foot of each other.“

Without a thorough amount of preconstruction of risk factors and their solutions, mega projects budgets and timelines can blow up.

“There’s a lot of unknowns in what you’re dealing with but we engineers pride ourselves on solving problems,” Koffman said.

Kightlinger agrees that building the tunnels present the most unforeseen risk. “These are going to be tunnels 150 feet below the surface you sometimes run into things that nobody predicted”

He acknowledges that the environmental opposition and lack of support from potential participants works against the project.

“Some people really dislike this project. It does pit north against south, agriculture against urban, and sometimes you just have to move forward,” Kightlinger said. “I think this is a real test of can California still do big things anymore.”