Friday, 11 August 2017

Initial reaction to Metropolitan Water District Financing White Paper

I am leaving for the airport in 30 minutes, but judging from my Inbox, there is a high demand for a reaction to Metropolitan Water District’s recently posted white paper on financing and ratepayer costs of the Delta Tunnels.  Here is my reaction after an initial review.

All the calculations and modeling in the paper relies on 3 huge assumptions which are almost certainly false.

  • It assumes farmers (and wildlife refuges) pay the vast majority (approximately 2/3) of the estimated $17 billion cost.  Multiple analysis and statements by various potential participants have shown this is unlikely.  Drop this assumption, and Met’s cost share could triple.
  • Cost comparisons are based on an assumed average annual yield (incremental increase in water supply) of 1.3 million acre feet per year.  This is a wildly optimistic estimate.  The WaterFix official documents (permit application) is based on an annual average yield of 225,000 acre feet.  Using more realistic and correct yield estimates increases the incremental cost of the project by a factor of 6.  (This issue is a bit wonky and I will have a future post that tries to simplify the issue and explain why it is more than an academic debate that could come back and bite water agencies and ratepayers.)  At minimum, board members should demand/expect to be shown cost comparisons over a range of plausible project yields - not just the base scenario.
  • The paper describes a host of critical financing issues as still “under negotiation” or being developed.  Agencies have been working on these issues for years and still have not come to a resolution.  The paper assumes all these issues will be handled in way that is satisfactory to the board.  Ratepayers, taxpayers and board members should be very uneasy about the way these issues are being deferred to the future.
One of the key issues where all 3 of these bullet points interact is what happens if (when) some agencies choose not to participate.  The white paper hints (and I have heard a few water agency board members suggest this too) that it could be a good business opportunity because they can pick up extra water from the non-participants.  Not so fast, there are a lot of downsides and risk here.

For one, how will they determine the water supply the non-participants receive?  They will not be using the no-tunnel baseline that results in the 1.3 maf yield calculation, thus handing over their water allocation to MWD.  They will use the baseline in the official permit applications (with good justification), and this is just one of the ways where the rosy projection of 1.3 maf of water yield made by MWD staff could disapear.

A few other notes:
  • Costs for the Contra Costa Water District settlement and new tidal marsh from the Biops do not appear to be included.
  • The other big projects from the past in the comparison chart are all urban projects.  None of them were counting on farmers and wildlife refuges to pay 2/3 of the cost.
  • Few details included about how this JPA issuing bonds will work, and how the 45% CVP share will be paid directly?  
  • If MWD does pick up transferred shares from others - how will those be paid?  Will MWD have to guarantee to accept transfer or purchase of unwanted allocations in order to finance the project?
  • How will cost overruns be handled?
  • Most businesses are owned by local people, so the non-residential costs fall on them too.
  • What about comparing the cost of tunnel water to conservation/efficiency, stormwater capture, and other more cost-effective options.
Off to airport security.  Fortunately, I understand the MWD board won’t be voting on this until late September so there will be time to ask and hopefully receive better answers to these questions than the white paper provides.  This document surely doesn’t provide the information that is required to make a public policy decision of this consequence.


About the Author

Ethan Jacob

Author & Editor

I am Ethan Jacob Executive Director of the Center for Business and Policy Research at the University of the Pacific, where I have a joint faculty appointment in the Eberhardt School of Business and the Public Policy Program in the McGeorge School of Law..

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