LOS ANGELES (CN) – A powerful Southern California water agency voted Tuesday to negotiate an option to buy four islands in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, a purchase that could cost up to $240 million.
The board of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California voted 28-3 to enter into negotiations for 20,370 acres of Delta Wetlands Properties-owned land in Contra Costa, San Joaquin, and Solano counties.
Delta Wetlands Properties is owned by Zurich American, a subsidiary of Zurich Insurance Group.
Though the district’s Bay-Delta Initiatives manager Stephen Arakawa presented a PowerPoint on Monday detailing how the agency could make use of the land, negotiations for prices and terms were discussed in a closed session.
Arakawa said the water district is considering four islands that Delta Wetlands has owned or partially owned for 30 years: the Bacon and Bouldin Island and the Holland and Webb Tract. In addition, the company owns part of the Chipps Island.
The land is primarily used for growing corn.
Arakawa, who is responsible for managing plans to secure a reliable water supply from the delta, said a purchase could pave the way for water transfers and storage, provide emergency fresh water in the event of an earthquake, and complement Gov. Jerry Brown’s California WaterFix project – 35-mile twin tunnels beneath the delta.
Other potential benefits were environmental, Arakawa said, including habitat restoration and reduction of greenhouse gas emissions.
After the vote, the board’s general manager Jeffrey Kightlinger said that comparable land prices in the area are somewhere between $7,500 per acre to $12,000 per acre and that the agency would look to purchase the land at the “midpoint” range.
At the low end, the purchase carries a price tag of $150 million. At the high end, the price could be $240 million.
Metropolitan Water District director Yen Tu said during the board meeting that she was concerned the public did not have enough information on how the district would make use of the land and was “troubled” by a “lack of due diligence.”
Outside the agency’s board room in downtown LA, Tu said there had not been enough discussion on the “why and how” of the potential purchase.
“If we’re talking about terms and we’re talking about price that is very appropriate to be in a closed session,” Tu said, but added: “This doesn’t go with the spirit of the law that [gives] the public an opportunity to know about it and be able to have a public discussion.”
In a news conference after the vote passed, Kightlinger brushed off concerns about transparency.
“We have one director who said we should have done everything in open session but that’s not really how you do property negotiations. It’s a pretty standard practice that when you acquire property – you’re negotiating terms and conditions – you do that in closed session,” Kightlinger said. “We think we followed the Brown Act [California’s public meetings law] both to the letter and spirit scrupulously, and probably more so than I’ve seen most agencies do, frankly.”
Director Keith Lewinger also joined Tu and Michael Hogan in voting against the motion. All three are with the San Diego County Water Authority.
“Yesterday during the presentation there were 10 or 15 different potential benefits of buying the land. But at no time did staff say, ‘These are benefits that will accrue to Metropolitan,'” Lewinger told Courthouse News. “Without knowing what the benefit is to Metropolitan I can’t meet my fiduciary responsibility and vote yes to buy land when I don’t know what it’s for. It’s that simple.”
Some environmental groups in the delta have charged that the purchase is little more than a land grab. But Kightlinger said that water transfers are a low priority because the islands are not “very water rich.” Instead, the district is focused on sustaining and restoring the Delta’s environment, he said.
“We really see the long-term value here as the potential ability to transform the lands into something that’s more protective of our long-term interests,” Kightlinger said.
But Brenna Norton, an organizer for the group Food and Water Watch, said that the district was “laying the groundwork” for Brown’s tunnel project, which she described as a “$67 billion boondoggle.”
“They provide no water for California, only water for big agriculture and no reliability. It’s a bad investment for LA and Southern California and Metropolitan shouldn’t be doing this,” Norton said.
Conner Everts, a facilitator with the Environmental Water Caucus, said the district should focus its efforts on treating wastewater in Southern California rather than the environmentally costly alternative of water transfers.
“Let’s get real about our water issues and let’s do immediate cost-effective, environmentally beneficial solutions not the ones that would do entirely the opposite, like this project,” Everts said.
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