LOS ANGELES (CN) – A powerful Southern California water agency and the largest distributor of treated drinking water in the nation is moving forward with the $175 million purchase of four islands in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta – a deal critics call a “water grab.”
The purchase and sale agreement between the Metropolitan District of Southern California and Delta Wetlands Properties was executed this past Friday, the agency said. Last month, the agency’s board of directors authorized general manager Jeffrey Kightlinger to enter into a contract with the islands’ owner.
“As discussed at our board meeting on March 8, 2016, staff continues its due diligence on the property and will report back to the board,” Kightlinger wrote in an email sent to the board and shared with Courthouse News.
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 has been in negotiations for months to purchase 20,370 acres of property owned by Delta Wetlands Properties in Contra Costa, San Joaquin, and Solano counties.
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.
The agency says the purchase will allow the district to transfer water and create storage, provide emergency fresh water in the event of an earthquake, and complement Gov. Jerry Brown’s California WaterFix project in the delta.
Brown’s controversial $25 billion plan 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.
Metropolitan says the purchase has several environmental benefits including habitat restoration and reduction of greenhouse gas pollution.
But some environmental groups in the delta say the purchase will allow Metropolitan to divert water from Northern California.
Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla of Restore the Delta called the proposed purchase a “total water grab.”
“They buy up the water rights with the land,” Barrigan-Parrilla said during a phone interview. “They’re buying up our community in the Delta watershed so that they can export more and more water from the region, and they will end up killing off the fisheries and the farming community that is part of the delta.”
Barrigan-Parrilla said that Southern California ratepayers do not understand that Metropolitan has already spent $100 million on the WaterFix plan even though ratepayers will not receive any additional water.
“Now their general manager is part of the water grab that wants to spend another $175 million,” Barrigan-Parrilla said. “It’s an absolute boondoggle that ratepayers are going to be paying so much for so little.”
Shortly after the board voted last year to negotiate a purchase, Kightlinger said that water transfers are a low priority and characterized the islands as 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 last year.
The board is scheduled to vote on the proposed deal on April 26.
Meanwhile, the Interior Department’s inspector general launched an investigation Monday into whether federal funds given by the Bureau of Reclamation to the California Department of Water Resources for the benefit of fish and wildlife were instead spent on environmental reviews for the delta tunnels project.
The probe comes on the heels of a complaint by nonprofit Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility that the $60 million given by the feds to California under the Fish and Wildlife Coordination Act was misused by the Golden State.
The California Department of Water Resources said it will cooperate with the Interior Department investigation.
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