LOS ANGELES (CN) – The giant utility that provides 19 million Southern California residents with water voted a second time Tuesday to pay for the bulk of a $16 billion state water project, but not before residents again lobbed accusations of “backroom dealings.”
Metropolitan Water District of Southern California board members held a second vote to assuage claims it violated open government and transparency laws when some board members privately discussed the California WaterFix project before the April board meeting. A public records request of the water agency’s communications between board members backed up the claims.
The California WaterFix, also known as the Delta Tunnels project, is championed by Gov. Jerry Brown, who asked the board to approve funding for the project in a letter before the April vote. The project would divert water from Northern California sources through gigantic twin tunnels under the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta and send it to the south part of the Golden State.
The district had asked other water agencies across the state to partner on the project, but few have taken the bait. While its previous plan was to spend $4 billion, it approved a $10.8 billion offer in April and said it would negotiate with Central Valley farmers to chip in later.
On Tuesday, before the water district board members voted for the second time to approve their commitment to the project, audience members spoke for two hours during a public comment session that swayed between support and opposition.
Supporters of the project called it an important investment in the state’s water infrastructure. Jennifer Lowe of the Association of California Cities said the project will bring better water reliability to the state.
Many accused the board members of meeting prior to the April vote to discuss the WaterFix project. San Fernando Mayor Sylvia Ballin, also a water board member, said she was concerned with the news that some members discussed the project privately before voting.
“I just don’t understand,” said Ballin. “I now see people differently because of this document. I think there is a critical process problem. I’m very conflicted about this whole process.”
Los Angeles County resident Linda Basset said the vote was “taxation without representation.”
“How many of your ratepayers have you spoken to?” she asked the water board. “We got a lot of poor people that can’t afford this thing.”
Critics of the project say taxpayers will be the ones who foot the bill, with big agriculture corporations getting priority to water. The nonprofit Food & Water Watch says the San Francisco Bay Delta estuary and farmers will be hurt, as water is diverted from the Sacramento River, leaving many in the region short on water supply.
Another nonprofit advocacy group Natural Resources Defense Council recommended alternatives to the Delta Tunnels in April, including water-recycling projects and reservoir expansions across the state. The group cited the 2017 near-collapse of the Oroville Dam in Northern California as proof of “the need to adequately maintain our existing infrastructure.”