Delta plan costly necessity

After hours of argument Wednesday, everyone agreed that a controversial plan to change how water flows through the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta would raise your water rates.

The city’s utility estimates that the plan would increase water bills by $2 to $3 per month for a typical customer. The Municipal Water District of Southern California sets it at $5. The city’s independent ratepayer advocate placed the cost at anywhere from $1 to $6 per month.

Those estimates are for the Bay Delta Conservation Plan, which proposes to bore two 35-mile tunnels, each 40 feet wide, underneath a troubled part of a waterway east of the San Francisco Bay that is a lifeline for much of Southern California, including Los Angeles.

The City Council Energy and Environment Committee, meeting to consider how the Los Angeles Department of Water & Power should comment on the plan to the state by a July 29 deadline, was met with Los Angeles’ water woes and questions surrounding the costs of the project.

In a typical year, the city gets about 44 percent of its water from the delta. This year, the Department of Water & Power estimated that the figure is closer to 70 percent because of the severe drought.

The project purports to alleviate looming water scarcity, deteriorating water quality and dwindling fish populations that plague the delta waterway. There’s also the threat of an earthquake breaking the levees that the tunnels would replace, resulting in floods, seawater mixing with the freshwater supply, and massive economic damage to Los Angeles County, according to a much-talked-about study by Adam Rose of USC.

But the problem of cost seemed to irk the public – and council members – most at the hearing. The state originally pegged the cost at $25 billion. But the San Jose Mercury News reported in December it could reach $67 billion.

That figure was repeatedly referenced Wednesday by those who are against the plan and are calling for more study before allowing DWP to comment.

To committee Chairman Felipe Fuentes, an argument about rate increases was moot. He ultimately pushed for allowing the utility to issue a letter, which raised no objection from his committee members.

“Rate increases are inevitable, irrespective of what’s going to happen” with this plan, Fuentes said. He stressed the city’s job was to mitigate the increases. “I think it’s very clear, at least to me today, that we have to continue to rely on water from the delta.”

To the utility’s draft letter, council members added emphasis on the need for continuing state funding of local water supplies and concerns about cost overruns, and inserted the word “could” when it comes to whether the plan will meet the guidelines of a city-supported resolution related to the delta approved in 2009.

For Los Angeles resident Mike Chamness, the city’s move to comment on the plan without an accurate cost estimate was “outrageous.”

“This is a really irresponsible scenario, to have to force this down the mouths of the ratepayers,” Chamness said in an interview outside the meeting room. An eight-year resident of Venice, he made the trek to City Hall to urge further study on the issue.

Doug Arseneault, a spokesman with the Valley Industry and Commerce Association, said not issuing a comment would be “turning our backs on the fiscal and financial reliability of future Los Angeles.”

“The (Bay Delta Conservation Plan) is the most cost-effective way for ensuring our region has a reliable water supply,” Arseneault said.

Ultimately, better cost estimates will come once people agree on a plan, said Mark Cowin, director of the state Department of Water Resources.

“The practical matter is you have to get a firm proposal before you can allocate costs,” he said.

Contact the writer: 323-813-8332 or kmejdrich@losangelesregister.comTwitter: @kelmej

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