The embattled Delta tunnels project has secured a financing commitment from a Bay Area water agency, albeit a small one.
The board of Zone 7 Water Agency, which serves about 220,000 customers in Alameda County, voted Wednesday to join the project, known officially as California WaterFix. The 5-2 vote came one day after Westlands Water District, a sprawling agricultural district in Fresno and Kings counties, dealt WaterFix a huge setback by rejecting the project.
Zone 7’s share of the project would be only about 1 percent of the funding, according to agency general manager Jill Duerig. Westlands, by contrast, was expected to bear one-fifth to one-fourth of the estimated $17.1 billion cost of the tunnels; its no vote leaves a gaping hole in the financing plan.
Nevertheless, state officials were delighted to have Zone 7’s support as they struggle to keep the project going in the aftermath of Westlands’ no vote. Natural Resources Secretary John Laird, in a prepared statement, said Zone 7’s directors “demonstrated their commitment to securing a clean and sustainable water supply for their community.”
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For good measure, Zone 7 directors agreed to spend up to $250,000 to help with planning for the tunnels.
Zone 7 became the first water district to endorse the project. “It was a courageous thing for our board to do,” Duerig said Friday. “Being first isn’t always easy.”
She added that in spite of the uncertainty surrounding the project, her agency believes the tunnels will move forward in some fashion.
One possibility circulating in California water circles is a scaled-back version of the tunnels that would serve only those water agencies, such as Zone 7, that belong to the State Water Project. The major state contractors are the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California and a group of agricultural districts in Kern County, all of which are expected to vote on participating in the project in the next two weeks.
A state-only project “is certainly possible,” Duerig said. “A project can morph.”
A state-only approach would leave out Westlands and other members of the federal government’s Central Valley Project. Both the state and federal projects ship water through the Delta but have adopted different cost-allocation plans that make participation more affordable for the state contractors.
The tunnels are designed to re-engineer the fragile Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, the hub of California’s water network, and improve water shipments to urban and agricultural customers in the southern half of the state and parts of the Bay Area.
Zone 7 relies on deliveries from the Delta for about 80 percent of its supplies. The agency expects its customers’ water rates to increase about 20 percent to pay for its share of the tunnels.