On Thursday, California Governor Gavin Newsome’s administration released a statement regarding the cost of constructing an enormous tunnel to catch rainwater and store it in preparation for more extensive climate change-fueled droughts, saying it will now cost more than $20 billion to construct.

California state regulators have been working for decades to build some version of a water tunnel system. The giant tunnel, being bolstered by the Democratic governor, is down from two tunnels that were initially proposed by his predecessor, former Governor Jerry Brown. According to Newsom’s administration, the proposed tunnel can capture more water from the Sacramento River during storms, sending it further south for storage.

A previous cost estimate was reported in 2020, and the original price for the project was $16 billion for a single tunnel. However, the latest analysis estimates the cost to be closer to $20.1 billion, an increase attributed almost exclusively to post-pandemic inflation.

Regarding the project’s financing, Newsom’s administration says that 29 local public water agencies are pooling their resources, which will ultimately be collected from their customers.

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Photo courtesy of One Royal Project of Thailand Free Photo

The Berkeley Research Group, with California State funds, conducted the analysis that found the tunnel would effectively yield at least $38 billion in benefits, which is primarily due to a surging water supply that will also be better protected from natural disasters.

Emeritus professor at the University of California, David Sunding, the head of the analysis, stated, “The benefits clearly justify the costs.”

Nevertheless, despite the positive outlook, the expensive tunnel remains a highly debated topic. The Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, the largest estuary on the West Coast and a sanctuary for several endangered species, is already facing significant ecological decline. Numerous environmental organizations are raising alarms about the proposed tunnel construction, arguing that it would further devastate this critical habitat. These groups stand against the project, highlighting the irreversible impacts it could have on the already fragile delta ecosystem.

The analysis released on Thursday reveals that the environmental impacts include reduced water quality in the Delta and impacts on agricultural land, air quality, noise, and transportation.

Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla, executive director of the environmental advocacy group Restore the Delta, stated, “Instead of foisting the costs of this boondoggle project onto Californians, the state should invest in sustainable water solutions that promise to restore the Delta ecosystem, not destroy it.”

Besides environmental concerns, the tunnel has also become fuel for the political fires that burn across Central Valley’s farming communities, where they view it as another ploy by Southern California to rob them of their water. State lawmakers have blocked all attempts to speed up or otherwise benefit the tunnel’s construction.

U.S. Representative Josh Harder, a Democrat whose district includes communities such as Stockton, Lodi, and Galt within the Central Valley, said, “This new analysis acknowledges that we’ve known all along: the Delta tunnel is meant to benefit Beverly Hills and leave Delta communities out to dry.” He continued, “I’m sick and tired of politicians and Sacramento ignoring our valley voices, and I will do everything in my power to stop them from stealing our water.”

The tunnel would be part of the State Water Project, a complex system of dams, reservoirs, and canals that irrigate 750,000 acres of farmland and deliver water to 27 million residents.

The director of the California Department of Water Resources, Carla Nemeth, says, “There is a very real cost to do nothing. It is vastly more efficient and economical to avoid declining supplies.” She concludes, “Water shortages, mandatory restrictions, land fallowing, and job loss all impact our state and local economies.”