Southern California’s powerful water agency committed more than $4 billion to the Delta tunnels Tuesday, giving the troubled plan a desperately needed vote of confidence.
The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California’s board voted to pay for about a quarter of the tunnels project, Gov. Jerry Brown’s $17.1 billion effort to re-engineer the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and improve water deliveries to south state cities and farms. The vote was 69 percent to 22 percent under Metropolitan’s voting system, which gives more weight to the largest cities, with the rest abstaining.
Much of the opposition came from the board’s Los Angeles and San Diego delegates, who said the region should reduce its dependence on the Delta. Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti came out against the project just as the Metropolitan board meeting got under way.
Representing 19 million residents from San Diego to Riverside, Metropolitan became the largest agency to commit to the project officially known as California WaterFix. Its vote came three weeks after the farmers of the Westlands Water District in the San Joaquin Valley, fearful of the tunnels’ costs, dealt the project a near-fatal setback by refusing to commit.
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Metropolitan officials said it was vital to press ahead with the tunnels as a means of ensuring reliability of south state water supplies, in spite of the uncertainty created by Westlands’ vote.
“Westlands is important, but so is Metropolitan,” said board chairman Randy Record, who represents the Riverside area. “I don’t want to think that since they took their vote, it’s time to regress. ... It’s important for us to do what we did today, to say this is the project, this is our financial investment.”
The tunnels vote was probably the most momentous decision by Metropolitan since agreeing in 1960 to back the State Water Project, the complex of canals and dams pushed by Gov. Pat Brown, father of the current governor. The younger Brown says the tunnels are needed to shore up a system that’s aged badly over the decades.
“Metropolitan’s investment will provide water supply reliability for the region’s residents and economy,” said Brown’s natural resources secretary, John Laird, in a prepared statement.
For all its importance, though, Metropolitan’s support by itself won’t get the tunnels built, as Westlands’ rejection has left a multibillion-dollar hole in the financing plan. However, a “no” vote from Metropolitan would have probably killed the project for good. Metropolitan’s commitment gives the Brown administration time and some momentum to develop a scaled-down version of the tunnels if Westlands doesn’t change its mind.
Other major water agencies are scheduled to vote soon, including the Kern County Water Agency on Thursday and the Santa Clara Valley Water District next week.
Brown’s administration says the twin tunnels would improve the Delta’s battered ecosystem and protect endangered fish species, enabling the massive state and federal pumping plants near Tracy to deliver water more reliably to Metropolitan and other south-of-Delta water agencies. Without the tunnels, Brown’s administration says the pumping plants will reduce their deliveries in the coming years to comply with the Endangered Species Act.
Environmentalists, Delta farmers and other tunnel opponents rallied in front of Metropolitan’s headquarters tower in downtown Los Angeles Tuesday before heading inside to warn board members that environmental conditions in the Delta would worsen if the tunnels get built. Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla of Restore the Delta invoked an infamous Los Angeles “water grab” of a century ago, saying, “What is being pushed today is akin to what was done to the Owens Valley.”
Elected officials from the Sacramento area were quick to denounce the vote. “The state’s argument that this project will actually restore the Delta is unproven and probably never will be,” said Sacramento County Supervisor Don Nottoli. Sacramento County and some other local governments are suing to block the project on environmental grounds.
Many opponents said the water pouring out of the tunnels would benefit corporate farmers such as billionaire financier Stewart Resnick’s Wonderful pistachio farming operation, instead of ordinary Southern Californians. They also said Westlands’ rejection of the project would force Metropolitan to pick up an outsized share of the costs, saddling Southern Californians with dramatically higher water rates for decades to come.
“The people who are going to suffer the most are the people who can least afford to pay for this project,” Yvonne Martinez Watson, a Montebello resident representing the Sierra Club, told the board.
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Metropolitan officials have said they would consider picking up a bigger share of the costs down the road. But for now, the agency’s commitment is capped at 26 percent, which corresponds with Metropolitan’s share of the water pumped out of the Delta. Metropolitan’s staff says the agency’s contribution to the tunnels would mean rate hikes of just $1.90 to $3.10 a month for Southern Californians, depending on borrowing costs.
Despite Metropolitan’s vote, the funding gap left by Westlands and potentially other farm districts remains a major stumbling block for the tunnels. Those districts belong to the federal Central Valley Project and are recoiling from a cost-sharing formula imposed by U.S. officials that exempts some key water agencies with senior water rights and no compelling need to support the tunnels. As other Central Valley Project customers join Westlands on the sidelines, the financial shortfall could reach $6 billion.
Some Metropolitan board members cited the funding uncertainties as a key reason for voting against the tunnels. Michael Hogan, a board member from the San Diego area, said he was worried that Metropolitan “could be on the hook for hundreds of millions of dollars before we know who’s going to commit to the project.”
Others said Metropolitan should focus on developing its own water supplies and reduce its dependence on the Delta. Mark Gold, a board member from Los Angeles, said Metropolitan needs to go beyond its “20th century water importation model” and adopt a more sustainable strategy based on recycling, stormwater capture and other forms of locally created water.
Gold and others who voted against the proposal said they’d be interested in a smaller version of the tunnels. Others dismissed that idea, saying a bolder vision was needed. Larry McKenney, a board member from Orange County, said no Californian looks at the projects built decades ago and says, “Man, why did we build those so big?”
Jeff Kightlinger, Metropolitan’s general manager, said the giant agency can’t wean itself off Delta water, which accounts for about 30 percent of Metropolitan’s supply, and has to ensure that deliveries from the estuary improve.
Local water supplies make sense, “but they’re not meant to replace the State Water Project,” said board vice chair Gloria Gray.
Besides contributing $58 million toward planning costs over the past decade, Metropolitan already has spent $175 million buying a string of islands in the Delta, possibly to use as staging areas for tunnel construction.