A powerful Southern California water agency has breathed life back into the twin-tunnels Delta water project, a plan that appeared dead just a few days ago.
In a dramatic 11th-hour pivot, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California is considering again whether to finance the lion's share of the entire Delta tunnels project instead of supporting the scaled-back, single-tunnel approach.
The district, in a memo Friday to its board, said board members will vote next week on supporting one of two options for the controversial project: Spend about $5 billion to help pay for a single tunnel or spend nearly $11 billion to fund the majority share of two tunnels.
Until Friday, Metropolitan was backing the more modest effort to build one tunnel but is reviving the possibility of paying for both tunnels at the prodding of board members from Orange County.
The tunnels project, known officially as California WaterFix, is supposed to be paid for by south-of-Delta water agencies. But San Joaquin Valley farmers, wary of the cost, largely have been unwilling to pay into it, leaving a $6 billion hole in the $16.7 billion plan.
In response, Gov. Jerry Brown's administration earlier this year backed a less-expensive plan: Build one tunnel for about $10.7 billion and build a second tunnel later if the dollars become available.
Metropolitan previously had agreed to contribute more than $4 billion to the project. But the district, one WaterFix's biggest supporters, wanted to do more. Metropolitan had been considering an ambitious plan to finance the valley farmers' share, which would allow both tunnels to get built together. Metropolitan would then sell space in the tunnels to the farmers to compensate the Southern California agency for contributing the extra billions.
Four days ago, Metropolitan's executives reluctantly scrapped that idea because they hadn't been able to make any deals with the valley farmers. District officials said their board would vote Tuesday to support the governor's scaled-back model and spend $5 billion on Metropolitan's share of a single tunnel.
Now both options are back on the table. A contingent of board members, led by representatives from Orange County, wants to move ahead with the twin tunnels, even if there aren't any deals currently in place with valley farmers to reimburse Metropolitan later. Proponents say building the two tunnels in tandem ensures water-supply reliability and is more cost-effective than building the project in phases.
The Municipal Water District of Orange County, which is part of Metropolitan, voted Wednesday to support the two-tunnel project.
Orange County's proposal could set up a razor-thin vote Tuesday. San Diego's representatives have been staunch opponents of the tunnels in any form, and the Los Angeles City Council has voted to oppose WaterFix if L.A. residents have to pay more than their "fair share."
"My guess is it's going to be really close," said Metropolitan general manager Jeff Kightlinger in an interview Friday. He said the staff is recommending the one-tunnel version of WaterFix because it's less risky.
Brett Barbre, who serves on both the Orange County and Metropolitan boards, said he is trying to overcome the opposition from Los Angeles and San Diego because he believes the twin-tunnels project makes the most financial sense. The tunnels are supposed to improve reliability of water deliveries to the southern half of the state but are deeply opposed by most Delta landowners and Northern California elected officials, who say it will worsen the estuary's troubled ecosystem.
"Any time L.A. and San Diego join as partners to support or oppose anything, that's a pretty powerful bunch to overcome," Barbre said in an interview Friday. "Tuesday will be very historic. It's David vs. Goliath right now."
Orange County district spokesman Damon Micalizzi said financing the majority share of both tunnels would inflate ratepayers' costs by less than $5 a month, even if valley farmers don't wind up paying their share.
Any other local investment in water supply reliability would cost two or three times that amount, he said.
"It is the single most cost-effective option for reliability for the state," Micalizzi said.
Spokeswoman Lisa Lien-Mager of Brown's Natural Resources Agency said the administration still believes the twin tunnels are "the best for the state. ... We just look forward to seeing where (Metropolitan's directors) land on this."