Ever since he took office three years ago, Gov. Jerry Brown has been trying to build two landmark public works projects to reshape California: a $68 billion high-speed rail system and a $25 billion overhaul of the state's water system, including two massive tunnels under the Delta.
Both have been debated separately so far, with most public attention going to the bullet train plan.
But on Monday, as state officials released a 25,000-page environmental study of the water tunnels plan, critics began to make comparisons between the two, noting that the administration is steaming ahead with both projects, even though neither has anywhere near the funding in place to complete the job.
"Both projects are very questionable," said Jonas Minton, water policy adviser for the Planning and Conservation League, an environmental group in Sacramento. "High-speed rail only has a very small down payment. The water plan doesn't even have that. The public should be very concerned."
If the two projects are linked in the public's mind, that could create big political problems for the water plan, say political experts.
"People are having doubts about high-speed rail," said Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a senior fellow at the University of Southern California Price School of Public Policy.
"The Delta tunnels project is not going to be helped if it is framed within the same parameters," she said. "It's a very simple argument that makes sense to the average Californian: You can't buy something without having a down payment and some idea where the rest of the money is going to come from."
Brown's water plan calls for building two tunnels, each 40 feet high and 35 miles long, under the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, with construction starting in 2017. The plan also would restore 147,000 acres of wetlands and other habitat for endangered fish and other species, and reinforce hundreds of miles of levees against earthquakes.
Supporters say the plan is the best way to restore endangered salmon, smelt and other fish while also providing a more reliable source of water for the 25 million Californians who rely on the Delta for water.
On Monday, California Secretary for Natural Resources John Laird rejected the link to high-speed rail.
"This is different," he said. "It's not an apt comparison."
Laird noted that under the current plan, $16.9 billion to build the tunnels and operate them is proposed to come from a variety of water agencies, including the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, the Santa Clara Valley Water District, and farm districts like Westlands in the San Joaquin Valley. They would sell bonds and raise water rates, although none has yet made a legally binding commitment to do that.
The remaining $7.6 billion to restore wetlands and fund science and monitoring for 50 years, he noted, would come from Congress and a state water bond, which voters would have to approve.
Laird said it's perfectly reasonable to begin large projects without having all the funding in hand.
"It's sort of like, do you have all the money when you sign on the dotted line to buy a car over five years?" he said. "No, but you are committed to do it, and you will do it."
In this case, Laird said, construction wouldn't begin until the water contractors have all signed binding agreements to pay the $16.9 billion construction costs. If the state doesn't have the rest of the money, construction could still start, Laird said, because California would have years to find the money for wetlands restoration.
Opponents of the tunnels called Brown's plan a costly boondoggle that will result in more water being pumped out of an already overtaxed ecological system, mostly to subsidize large corporate farmers in Kern County and San Joaquin Valley. They said the entire plan is built on shaky financing.
"The financial hole in this is at least as large as the financial hole in the high-speed rail plan," said Jeffrey Michael, director of the Business Forecasting Center at the University of the Pacific in Stockton.
The state's leading taxpayer organization said it is watching closely.
"You don't want to build a house before you've gotten a loan," said Jon Coupal, president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association. "There needs to be adequate planning with the financing. That's the lesson of high-speed rail. An inadequate financing plan is asking for trouble."
Voters in 2008 approved a $9.95 billion bond to build a 200-mph bullet train from San Francisco to Los Angeles. The cost estimate then was $33 billion for the whole project. The rest of the money was supposed to come from Congress, private investors, fares and other sources.
But the price tag ballooned to $68 billion. And last month, a Sacramento Superior Court judge blocked the state from spending its money, in part because it had not come up with a viable plan to prove there will be enough money to finish the job once construction starts.
So far, water agencies around the state have spent $240 million for planning the Delta tunnels. They'll need to put up another $1.2 billion for planning, soil studies and other costs before 2017, according to the state Department of Water Resources.
"Everybody's being cautious," said Beau Goldie, CEO of the Santa Clara Valley Water District, which has so far put up $12 million toward the studies. "We aren't going to invest in something we think isn't going to happen. But so far, we're positive."
For more information about the plan, go to http://baydeltaconservationplan.com.
Paul Rogers covers resources and environmental issues. Contact him at 408-920-5045. Follow him at Twitter.com/PaulRogersSJMN.