LOS ANGELES (CN) – One of the largest water agencies in Southern California agreed Tuesday to pay for the bulk of a $16 billion plan to build a pair of water tunnels that will send water from northern parts of the state south, a move some critics say will increase rates for customers and harm the environment.
The California WaterFix, often referred to as the Delta Tunnels, initially would have been paid for by water agencies south of the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta in Northern California. The plan was for additional costs to be paid for by farmers in Central California.
But the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California says it will foot most of the $16.7 billion bill to build two tunnels in Northern California.
The water district previously said it would offer $4 billion for the single-tunnel project. But on Tuesday that plan shifted, as the district approved the $10.8 billion plan, where they will negotiate with valley farmers to chip in on the cost later.
Initial staff reports said the district board should support a $5 billion project for one tunnel, but late last week the board said it would consider the two-tunnel option and on Monday Gov. Jerry Brown spelled out his support for the two-tunnel model in a letter to the district’s board.
Brown said the WaterFix project “does the most to prepare for our future” and urged the board to support the full project without delay or face increased costs for a one-two tunnel development.
In a statement Brown said, ““This is a historic decision that is good for California – our people, our farms and our natural environment.”
One tunnel could pump 6,000 cubic feet of water per second and would require two new intakes along the Sacramento River with one downstream forebay and pumping station.
Opponents of the project say it’s shortsighted, as the Southern California district will be paying for a large slice of the pie for a statewide project. Environmental advocacy group Natural Resource Defense Council said last year’s crisis at Oroville Dam in Northern California, where parts of the spillway showed visible cracks, highlights the need to maintain existing infrastructure.
WaterFix critics say moving the project forward will pass increases to ratepayers. Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla with Restore the Delta, a group opposed to the tunnels, said the resolution provides a no-cap spending limit for the project.
“You’re essentially giving staff a blank check,” Parrilla said.
Supporters of the plan say the Delta infrastructure is outdated.
Charles Wilson with the Southern California Water Coalition said the project is the best option for Southern California and is the most cost efficient means to address growing water demands.
Several board members agreed the vote was premature and asked to delay making a decision until next month.
Vice Chair Gloria Gray said there have been 90 committee meetings over a 12 year period related to California WaterFix and the board has had plenty of time to study the project.
San Fernando Mayor Sylvia Ballin said when the board voted to support the one-tunnel project in October 2017, the hope was other water agencies would step forward to partner with the water district to help pay for the cost.
“We were told to ‘Step up and lead’ and now it’s ‘Step up and pay.’ The numbers keep changing,” Ballin said.
The district’s funding approval on Tuesday moves forward a pet project on Brown’s to-do list since he first took office in 1975. Construction on the Delta Project could begin as early as 2019, when California will have a new governor.
A similar project that sent water through aqueducts from the Sacramento Delta to farms in the San Joaquin Valley was started by then Gov. Pat Brown, Jerry Brown’s father, during his time in office in the 1960s.
Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti has called the Delta Tunnel project an outdated approach to getting water to local residents.
In an opinion piece for the Los Angeles Daily News last month, Garcetti said, “…We cannot rely solely on 20th century engineering for our 21st century water needs — and projects like the Delta tunnels run the risk of siphoning off precious ratepayer dollars and endangering the fragile Delta ecosystem.”