Southern California’s largest water agency Tuesday threw a lifeline to California WaterFix, approving a $4.3-billion buy-in to the water delivery project.
The closely watched vote by the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California board does not ensure the survival of the $17-billion project, which needs significant funding from other urban and agricultural water districts to move forward.
But it gives a much-needed boost to the long-planned proposal to build two massive tunnels under the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, the heart of California’s complex waterworks.
The influential MWD staff has been a leading proponent of WaterFix, arguing that it is necessary to sustain delta deliveries that constitute roughly a third of the Southland’s water supplies.
Gov. Jerry Brown last week personally lobbied board members on behalf of the project, a top priority of his administration.
During two hours of public comments before the vote, MWD’s packed board room echoed with passionate arguments for and against WaterFix.
Opponents — mostly environmentalists and community advocates — complained that the tunnels would drive up regional water rates, harm the struggling delta environment and primarily benefit San Joaquin Valley agribusiness.
Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla, executive director of Restore the Delta, an anti-tunnel group, called the project a nostalgic effort to build a massive water project that the state does not need and that already faces multiple lawsuits.
A Beverly Hills City Council member retorted that project opposition was motivated by “anti-Southern California bigotry” and the parochial self-interests of delta growers.
Southern California business and labor representatives urged the board to vote yes, saying the tunnels were critical to preserving water deliveries that sustain the regional economy.
The urban and agricultural customers who rely on delta deliveries are supposed to pay for the tunnels, which would carry supplies from a new diversion point on the Sacramento River in the north delta to existing government pumping plants in the south delta.
The financing plan suffered a major setback last month when the Westlands Water District, the state’s largest irrigation district, said its growers could not afford the tunnels and voted not to participate in WaterFix.
With MWD expected to pick up 26% of the project’s costs, the agency’s support is critical. The Kern County Water Agency board is expected to vote Thursday on its share.
If Westlands does not change its mind and other agricultural districts that receive delta supplies from the federal Central Valley Project don’t step up, the project would have to be downsized to match the diminished funding.