Tunnel Vision

After four years of drought, Lake San Antonio fell to just 5 percent of its capacity last summer, and this past winter’s rains only brought it back to 10 percent.

While this past winter’s storms helped fill reservoirs across the state, taking some of the pain out of a years-long drought, Monterey County wasn’t so lucky: Lake Nacimiento is at only 32-percent capacity, while Lake San Antonio is at only 10 percent.

And the coming winters may not bring much help. Francisco Chavez, a senior scientist at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, says the Pacific Ocean remains in a 20-to-40-year cycle where water temperatures are cooler than average, creating conditions favorable to drought in the West. And he says the ocean is expected to remain in that cycle for at least four more years.

That outlook makes the county’s proposed $77 million interlake tunnel project, which would send water from Lake Nacimiento to Lake San Antonio, seem somewhat counterintuitive: Why spend all that money when there is no guarantee it will capture more water?

Rob Johnson, deputy general manager of the Monterey County Resources Agency, says the ongoing drought is actually what renewed interest in the tunnel, which has been discussed intermittently since 1978. Johnson says it’s more important than ever to ensure water isn’t released from Lake Nacimiento for flood control purposes during wet years, and that having the infrastructure to prevent that is key, even if it’s not often utilized.

“It’s a critical piece of infrastructure,” he says. “You don’t want to drive around without a spare tire.”

Despite being fed by watersheds just miles apart, Lake Nacimiento fills far faster than Lake San Antonio, and the proposed tunnel would not only help equalize the lakes, it will increase Lake Antonio’s storage capacity by 59,000 acre-feet. Johnson adds the current drought conditions are ideal for constructing the project, as work on the San Antonio side won’t have to be done underwater.

“We have multiple number-one priority projects, but this is number one of the number ones,” he says.

Despite that, many questions remain about the project, particularly how it would be financed. Assemblyman Luis Alejo, D-Salinas, introduced a bill in January that asked for $25 million in state funds to help build the tunnel, but as the bill passed through the Assembly, that number was reduced to $10 million.

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If the state money doesn’t come through as planned, Johnson says it’s likely the county would pursue a public-private partnership – not eligible for state funding – wherein a private contractor would be repaid through annual assessments on landowners. He says the agency is looking at all options, including the possibility of federal funding.

Several potential legal challenges face the project going forward, Johnson says, especially with respect to property owners around Lake Nacimiento, who he says are concerned the tunnel might reduce the water level of the lake, and therefore the value of their properties.

He says the county is still studying the costs and benefits of keeping water in Lake Nacimiento as long as possible, as opposed to transferring some of it to Lake San Antonio, but right now there are more questions than answers.

The environmental scoping period for the project closed June 13, and Alejo’s bill, which is currently in State Senate committee hearings, must be passed by the senate by Aug. 31.

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