The largest water district in California agreed Tuesday to fork over nearly $11 billion to build two tunnels that will siphon water south from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, a major boost for Gov. Jerry Brown's pet project.
The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California threw its considerable weight behind the massive water distribution plan, called California WaterFix, after a nearly four-hour debate.
The Metropolitan board was asked to decide on spending $5.2 billion for a single tunnel or $10.8 billion to help finance construction of both tunnels. Brown urged the board to approve the two-tunnel plan.
"This is a historic decision that is good for California — our people, our farms and our natural environment," Brown said in a statement following the board's decision.
Unless more agencies agree to contribute, the district, which supplies water for 19 million residents in Southern California, will now pay almost 65 percent of the $17 billion cost of building twin 40-foot-wide tunnels. The tunnels will divert water from the Sacramento River 35 miles to the state and federal pumps in the south delta, where it would be distributed to the San Joaquin Valley and Southern California.
The decision comes a week after officials with the sprawling agency appeared to back down after the state said it would scale-back the project from two tunnels to one.
State water officials announced in February after several water agencies dropped out that they would build only a single pipeline for $10.7 billion that would carry two-thirds as much water. The plan was to eventually build the second tunnel after the first one was in place — and if the money became available.
The Metropolitan Water District, which has always been a primary backer of the plan, went so far as to buy more than 20,000 acres in the delta, including four key islands. Two of the islands — Bouldin and Bacon — are in the path of the proposed tunnels.
The idea of WaterFix is to modernize the state's water system, ensure reliable deliveries south and help the delta ecosystem. Brown and water officials throughout the state have said the 1,100 miles of levees in the delta are increasingly vulnerable to earthquakes, flooding and saltwater intrusion from downstream.
The problem with the system now is that the big pumps near Tracy used by the State Water Project and the federal Central Valley Project suck in and kill fish, including young chinook salmon and endangered delta smelt. The pumps have also caused portions of the San Joaquin River to flow backward, confusing the migrating fish, according to biologists.
The problems have forced rationing of water deliveries to Central Valley farmers, Southern California water agencies and some Bay Area water suppliers in dry years.
The Brown administration said the tunnel system would deliver more water to Southern California and prevent smelt and other fish from being sucked into pipes.
Several members of the Metropolitan board urged their colleagues to delay until next month a vote to more than double their contribution from the 26 percent of the cost they agreed to last October. The majority said it was the guarantee of a secure water supply in the future that made them support the two-tunnel plan.
"I'm devoted to make sure that our constituency gets the water they need at a fair price," said Larry Dick, who represents Orange County on the Metropolitan board and described himself as tight with money. "Without a water supply, our jobs supply dries up."
Metropoliltan is the biggest of about 20 water agencies in the state — most of them south of the delta — that have agreed to help pay for the project, but the coalition was in grave danger of falling apart.
Last fall, the board of the Westlands Water District, the nation's largest and most powerful farm irrigation district, voted not to pay for its share of the tunnels after concluding that the project was "not financially viable."
The Santa Clara Valley Water District voted to contribute only a third of the $600 million the state was counting on from it, saying it would consider one tunnel but not two.
Jeffrey Kightlinger, Metropolitan's general manager, wrote a memo last week saying he was backing away from the two-tunnel plan, but agreed under pressure from trustees and Southern California water agencies to put it back on the board agenda.
The back and forth is illustrative of the angst-ridden debate going on across the state. The primary issue is that farmers in the river towns and rural communities along the delta don't like the idea of spending vast sums to send precious water south, especially without any guarantee that they would get any more water.
The delta residents and their representatives aren't alone in their criticism. Fisheries experts and environmentalists say the tunnels will devastate delta fish by depriving them of the most critical ingredient in their survival — freshwater.
Dozens of supporters and opponents spoke at the meeting Tuesday, with environmental groups opposing WaterFix and business leaders and construction trades groups championing the tunnels plan. Many of the speakers expressed concern that the lack of support in other regions would leave them holding the bill.
Metropolitan staff recommended approval of a single-tunnel plan, but the majority went full bore.
"It means we're back to the original full project, and Met is going to pick up a bigger part of it," said Kightlinger, whose district gets 30 percent of its supply from the State Water Project. "At the end of the day, we felt it was critical to get the project moving forward. We felt if we missed this chance it would never happen."
The tunnels issue is critical in California because many districts in the Bay Area and around the state rely on delta water.
San Jose, Cupertino, Santa Clara, Livermore, Fairfield, Vacaville, Pleasanton and San Ramon get water delivered from the delta by the same federal and state pumping plants that serve Southern California and the San Joaquin Valley.
Santa Clara County relies on imported water to meet, on average, 55 percent of its water needs, with 40 percent conveyed through the delta by the State Water Project and Central Valley Project.
The Alameda County Water District, which serves 344,000 people in southern Alameda County, gets 40 percent of its supply from the delta, and the Zone 7 Water Agency, which serves 245,000 people in the Livermore-Amador Valley, imports 83 percent of its water supply from the delta.
Metropolitan Water District officials said they expect many of these other agencies to get on board once the project moves forward.
The tunnels plan is a legacy issue for Brown, who, in his last incarnation as governor, pushed for a different plan known as the Peripheral Canal. That plan was rejected by voters in 1982.
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