With Delta tunnel project, Governor should avoid mistakes made with High Speed Rail

By Deirdre Des Jardins and Tom Williams

Governor Newsom inherited a mess from Governor Brown with the California High Speed Rail project. The first phase of the High Speed Rail project is in mid-construction, the costs have ballooned, and the first phase does not have adequate ridership to be viable on its own. It would have been far less costly to deal with the financial issues during the planning phase of the project.

Meanwhile with Governor Brown’s other mega-project, the twin tunnels, Newsom has announced that he no longer supports the project, but would support a revised, one tunnel project. But while Newsom’s administration is mulling potential changes to the project, the Delta Conveyance Design and Construction Authority is proceeding to preliminary and final design of the Brown Administration’s original twin tunnels project, under a $93 million contract signed with Jacobs Engineering in January. But there are major engineering issues with the project which have not been resolved.

First, the WaterFix proponents have claimed that the Delta tunnels project will provide $5.7 billion in economic benefits from mitigation of impacts of sea level rise. But the ability of the project to continue to provide fresh water has never been evaluated for recent higher projections of sea level rise, as first recommended by the Delta Independent Science Board in 2013. The project’s failure to use best available science on sea level rise was a key issue in identified in the November 2018 Delta Plan consistency review by the Delta Stewardship Council staff. The draft staff determination stated that the project’s sea level rise assumptions were “suitable for a coastal trail.”

Second, because of inadequate geotechnical borings, the design and construction of the 31 miles of Delta main tunnels/tunnel is likely to be subject to significant changes and cost escalation. The graph below is from a presentation by Massoud Manzari, and shows cost overruns vs. number of boreholes. The number of geotechnical boreholes for the Delta tunnels/tunnel project is at the extreme left end of the x axis.

Third, the Delta Protection Commission stated last October that the Department of Water Resources had “failed to grapple with the reality, demonstrated through evidence in the record, that CWF puts the long-term sustainability of small Delta communities in serious jeopardy” and that DWR had also “thoroughly fail[ed] to offer any meaningful mitigation for such impacts.” DWR has yet to address any of the issues raised by the Delta Protection Commission, or in the draft findings by the Delta Stewardship Council staff that the twin tunnels project is inconsistent with the Delta Reform Act and Delta Plan.

Newsom should put a hold on the $93 million preliminary and final design contract with Jacobs Engineering until his administration works out project revisions, and DWR develops a new Conceptual Engineering Report, based on an adequate evaluation of performance under high sea level rise, adequate geotechnical information, consistency with the Delta Reform Act and Delta Plan, and a sound financial plan. To proceed otherwise is folly.

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