LOS ANGELES (CN) — Despite growing opposition, the largest supplier of treated drinking water in the United States on Tuesday batted away a challenge to its planned $175 million purchase of four islands in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta.
Earlier this year, Metropolitan Water District of Southern California voted to purchase the islands. The matter was placed as an informational item on the agenda for Tuesday’s meeting should an issue arise during escrow that would cause the board of directors to reconsider.
After an informational meeting, Metropolitan Water District director Keith Lewinger, of the San Diego Water Authority, tabled a motion to withdraw from an agreement to purchase the islands which some critics have called a “water grab.”
“I would move that MWD withdraw from the escrow process and not consummate the purchase of the delta islands,” Lewinger said at the afternoon meeting.
Several directors also voiced concerns that the purchase of the islands is premature because the board has yet to formally support California’s Water Fix project.
The agency says the purchase will allow it to transfer water and create storage, provide emergency fresh water in the event of an earthquake, and complement Gov. Jerry Brown’s $25 billion tunnel project.
Brown’s project calls for two tunnels up to 150 feet beneath the delta and three new intakes with 3,000-cubic-feet-per-second capacity and an average annual yield of 4.9 million acre-feet.
Suja Lowenthal, representing the city of Long Beach, said it would be “premature” to consummate the purchase without first establishing the board’s policy on Water Fix.
“It’s actually suggesting that the board has taken a position on the fix,” Lowenthal said. “We may in the end, some months down the road, decide that that is exactly the direction that we want to go. But I don’t want our action to suggest we already have when we haven’t.”
Director Yen Tu, also of the San Diego Water Authority, seconded Lewinger’s motion. Tu said she was supporting the motion because Southern California ratepayers would end up footing the water supply costs for other state and federal contractors.
But the motion was defeated by a 54 percent majority of the board’s 29 directors.
In an email, Metropolitan spokesman Bob Muir wrote: “No other board action or future consideration is expected.”
After the meeting, Metropolitan general manager Jeffrey Kightlinger said the district is focused on sustaining and restoring the delta’s environment.
Kightlinger said there had been a “little push-back” from directors. But he said that the district would do its “due diligence” and come back and report to the board.
“While we didn’t really find any problems in going forward and purchasing it, people still want to take another vote on it. We did that but the decision was still to go forward and continue the purchase,” Kightlinger said.
The official said that habitat restoration on the islands will allow the district to secure a reliable water source.
“We need a sound environment, we need reliable water and the two go hand in hand. So we’ve always been leaders in trying to restore habitat, protect species. We know that’s in our long-term best interests,” Kightlinger said.
He said that while the district had not taken a final vote on the California Water Fix, it supports the project.
Before the meeting, three large boxes were wheeled into the meeting room containing 10,223 letters asking the board to reject the purchase.
In a letter to Metropolitan chairman Randy Record, Restore the Delta’s Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla said that the California residents are just a “small sampling” of millions of people in the Bay-Delta area who are opposed.
Even though Kightlinger emphasized that the purchase of the islands is for habitat restoration, Barrigan-Parrilla said the official had publicly stated that four of the Delta islands will be used as staging sites to help construct the tunnels.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said last year that the tunnel project “does not meet sound science standards” and the California Water Fix website says that the tunnel project “will not result in any additional water for Southern California,” Barrigan-Parrilla said.
She said that the $175 million would be better spent on a sustainable, self-sufficient water supply for Southern California through “conservation, storm water capture, recycling, local infrastructure upgrades, and new water technologies.”
“Again we ask, does it make financial sense for Metropolitan Water District to spend $175 million to purchase land to support an infrastructure project that will not meet Southern California’s water needs?” Barrigan-Parrilla wrote. “Does it make sense to spend millions of dollars to maintain delta levees on these islands year after year for no additional water supply?”
Metropolitan delivers an average of 1.7 billion gallons of water each day to more than 19 million people in the counties of Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino, San Diego and Ventura.
The agency negotiated for six months to purchase 20,370 acres of property owned by Delta Wetlands Properties.
Zurich Insurance Group owns Delta Wetlands Properties, which in turn owns or partially owns four islands: Bacon and Bouldin Islands and the Holland and Webb Tracts. In addition, the property company owns part of Chipps Island.
In a presentation on Tuesday, the district’s real property and asset management committee updated directors on the due diligence status of the purchase, the framework for habitat restoration reimbursements and details on how the district will finalize the sale.
Presentation documents say that during an environmental assessment of the properties no “red-flag” conditions were observed. Officials will conduct a final walk-through before the close of escrow, according to the documents.
In a closed session, the board was to report on current and possible lawsuits challenging the purchase of property from Delta Wetlands Properties.
Lawsuits challenging the delta purchase are: San Joaquin v. Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, et al., San Joaquin County Superior Court (Case No. STK-CV-UWM-2016-3597); North Coast Rivers Alliance v. Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, et al., Contra Costa County Superior Court (Case No. MSN16-0629); and Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations v. Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, et al., Solano County Superior Court (Case No. FCS046934).
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