Scope of delta tunnel plan's impact coming to light

Highway jumbles, ballooning costs are likely results

The Sacramento BeeApril 8, 2013 

— The state's proposal to build two huge water diversion tunnels under the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta is a major undertaking by itself. But the plan also calls for rerouting and reconfiguring three state highways to handle a decade of heavy construction traffic.

Conceptual engineering documents obtained by The Sacramento Bee illustrate detours on Highway 160 in Sacramento County around each of three giant water intakes proposed for the project, called the Bay Delta Conservation Plan.

Other documents discuss the need for new interchanges on Highways 4 and 12 along the tunnel alignment. This might entail widening each highway to add a middle turn lane so heavy construction traffic could safely access work areas along the tunnel route.

According to preliminary estimates by the state Transportation Department, altering the highways would cost at least $265 million. Once the intakes are built, the Highway 160 detours would be relocated again, moved to the top of new, larger levee segments.

The Bay Delta Conservation Plan is Gov. Jerry Brown's proposal to resolve decades of water conflict in California. The delta is the hub of the state and federal water supply network in California, a diversion point for Sierra Nevada snowmelt that serves 25 million people and 3 million acres of farmland.

Heavy demand for that water has put numerous delta fish species at risk of extinction, prompting a scramble for a solution that will improve habitat and make the water supply more reliable in the event of a disaster such as a flood or earthquake.

The proposal involves building two giant tunnels, each 40 feet in diameter and 35 miles long, to divert a portion of the Sacramento River's flow to existing water supply canals that begin near Tracy.

The tunnels would draw from three intakes, each nearly a half-mile square, proposed along the river between Freeport and Courtland in Sacramento County.

The plumbing works alone are estimated to cost $14 billion. This would be funded by bonds issued by the California Department of Water Resources, the agency responsible for the project.

The bonds would be repaid over a period of decades through more expensive water rates paid by those who benefit from the project. This includes utilities that serve farmers in the San Joaquin Valley and urban residents in San Jose, Los Angeles and San Diego.

Public hearings on the project are planned for this fall, with a final decision around the end of the year. That decision will be made by the DWR director and will require approval from state and federal wildlife agencies.

The documents obtained by The Sacramento Bee make clear that, as big as the tunnel project is, it is far more than a water project. It will dramatically reshape the landscape of the delta.

In addition to the intakes and tunnels, the project includes water storage forebays near Courtland and Byron; new power lines and electrical substations; 15 vertical shafts, each protected by new levees, for the tunneling operation; hundreds of acres of muck storage areas to hold materials excavated from the tunnels; and more than 100,000 acres of habitat restoration.

The highway modifications would be among the first changes, and altering these critical routes raises big concerns among local residents.

All three state highways in the delta are narrow, two-lane roads that are precarious and often crowded under present conditions. They bounce over shifting peat soil, meander along curving levees with steep drops, and squeeze across old drawbridges. Horrific accidents are common.

Most delta residents are firmly opposed to the tunnels. The revelation that the project may come with drastic highway modifications and years of construction detours adds another strike. And though they sometimes complain about road conditions, they don't welcome highway changes intended to serve a water diversion project.

Highway critical to ag

Highway 160, a state- designated scenic highway, is crucial to agriculture in Sacramento County. Residents depend on the movement of farm products for their livelihood, and on a steady flow of tourists who come for the river views and farm stands along the highway.

Doug Hemly, the patriarch of a farming family that has grown pears and apples in the Courtland area since 1850, said periodic problems on the road system already cut into farm revenues. Detours and a decade of construction delays pose "real concerns," he said.

"The ripple effects on the economy could be catastrophic, because everything is so time-sensitive in an agricultural economy," Hemly said.

Highway 160 runs along the levee top adjacent to the Sacramento River. This means the roadway is squarely in the path of the three proposed intakes.

Gordon Enas, a principal engineer at DWR, acknowledged that the highway changes are being studied and said DWR is consulting with Caltrans on the specific requirements. But he said the designs are "way preliminary."

"It's all kind of conceptual at this point, so I'd hate to have you think we've finalized our design," Enas said. "We don't have a cost yet from Caltrans. All we've pretty much done is looked at what the alignments would be and what kinds of footprint-related impacts it would have."

None of the highway changes are discussed in the thousands of pages of planning documents released by the state over the past two months on the Bay Delta Conservation Plan. Nor have the costs of highway work been disclosed in the estimates released.

The draft engineering documents, prepared in September by DWR, were obtained from a source close to the project.

Caltrans spokesman Dennis Keaton said studies indicate the Highway 160 realignments would cost $65 million to $75 million. Adding turn lanes to highways 4 and 12 is estimated to cost $199 million. These estimates do not include land acquisition and environmental mitigation.

Extra costs adding up

University of the Pacific economist Jeffrey Michael cited the proposed roadwork as another example of costs that have not been figured into the final price tag for the tunnel project, at least in documents released to the public.

The leading example, Michael said, is debt service on the bonds issued to build the project. He estimates this at $1.1 billion annually for decades -- enough to triple the ultimate cost of the project.

Another is natural gas wells. The delta is a productive natural gas region strewn with wells, many of which are active and some that are not. Any well bore in the path of the tunnels is a physical obstacle to construction and a potential safety hazard.

Documents obtained by The Sacramento Bee show the state's intent is to buy out and cap any well that turns out to be in the way. This would involve negotiating with landowners and gas companies over wells that, in some cases, produce gas worth millions of dollars annually.

"There are a host of big questions, and they shouldn't avoid them until this point in the process," Michael said. "They are always kicked down the road because we don't have an exact project design yet and other sorts of statements. I don't think those are good excuses."

Supporters of the tunnel project say a contingency of 25 percent built into the $14 billion construction cost estimate ought to be enough to cover expenses such as modifying three state highways.

"In principal, we want to minimize the impact to the roadways, and keep the roadway so that it provides the same function as it did before," said Terry Erlewine, general manager of the State Water Contractors, a statewide association whose member utilities are among those that would pay the bills.

The planning documents, which include draft construction schedules, indicate Highway 160 would be moved off the levee during the first two to three years of construction. This phase includes raising the levee next to each intake to protect it from floods and sea level rise, building fish screens up to 2,400 feet long in the river, and water intake structures. Each highway detour would be about a mile long.

After this initial construction period, the highway would be moved back onto the new levee, and traffic would pass through the intake site while construction continues on other facilities, such as pumps, pipelines and sediment collection ponds.

Finishing each intake is estimated to take six years.

Construction would result in a dramatic increase in heavy truck trips on the highway to transport concrete, dirt for levee construction, steel beams and pumping equipment on roads in poor condition from present traffic loads.

This worries farmers such as Daniel Wilson, who relies on Highway 160 to get his cherries, pears and corn from field to packing shed and then to market. Wilson opposes the tunneling project, in part, because some of its facilities would supplant farmland he owns.

"We run a trucking company during our harvest season," Wilson said. "I can't see anything but total disruption of that for 10 to 15 years. It's hard to imagine that you wouldn't destroy the whole road system."

When traffic is returned on top of the rebuilt levee segments, the retooled highway path would be 150 to 200 feet farther from the river, and as much as 20 feet higher, according to the documents.

Scenic designation becomes a snag

It is unclear whether a river view would remain for travelers, or whether the new water intakes would be compatible with a scenic highway designation.

Highway 160 was named a state scenic highway in 1969 by virtue of its "historic delta agricultural areas and small towns along the Sacramento River," according to the Caltrans roster of scenic routes.

State law does not forbid development along scenic highways. But the designation does require preservation of scenic views and exclusion of incompatible land uses, such as gravel pits, concrete plants and billboards.

"It's a feather in your cap, locally, to be able to say you've got a very scenic road in your county," said Dennis Cadd, Caltrans coordinator of the scenic highway program. "So anything that's out of character with those natural features would be considered an intrusion to the scenic resources of that corridor."

Caltrans has authority under state law to revoke a scenic highway designation. But this would be a controversial move and has never been done, Cadd said.

Erlewine said the water contractors would seek to minimize harm to the scenic qualities of the area.

"In general, we would want to maintain the character as much as possible," he said. "That's one of the reasons we ended up going to the tunnel originally is to try to minimize visual impacts and land impacts from the project."

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