After a decade of planning and debate, the controversial Delta tunnels project got a huge cash infusion Tuesday and took a giant step toward becoming reality.
In a historic decision, the wealthy Metropolitan Water District of Southern California voted to take a majority stake in the $16.7 billion twin-tunnels project, a plan championed by Gov. Jerry Brown as a way of protecting the water supply for more than 25 million Southern California and Bay Area residents.
Metropolitan's breakthrough vote put the tunnels on the brink of full funding after years of struggle.
The project was opposed by most environmentalists, Delta landowners and Sacramento-area elected officials. Wary of the cost, most San Joaquin Valley farmers haven't been willing to contribute to the project, which left a gap of about $5.6 billion.
Metropolitan agreed Tuesday to bankroll the farmers' share, putting its total contribution to the project at $10.8 billion. The Southern California agency hopes to sell some of the tunnels' capacity to the farmers to recoup its additional investment.
"In 15 years, our ratepayers won't be left holding the bag," said Board Chairman Randy Record. "They'll be holding a really valuable piece of infrastructure."
With vast financial resources and the ability to spread the costs among 19 million residents, Metropolitan was willing to take on the risk even though it hasn't been able yet to make any deals with valley farmers. The cost will inflate the average residential water bill in Southern California by up to $4.80 a month if the farmers don't pitch in, according to Metropolitan's staff.
The vote was 61-39 percent under Metropolitan's unusual voting system, which is weighted by assessed property values. San Diego and Los Angeles' board members voted against the project, but were overcome by a group led by directors from Orange County and elsewhere.
"This is the cheapest source of water that is available to us currently," said Steve Blois, a board member from Thousand Oaks.
But vice chairman John W. Murray Jr., a Los Angeles representative, said it was folly "to take on the risk and the burden and the responsibility … with no assurance that at this point the Central Valley (agricultural) agencies are going to contribute." Los Angeles board member Mark Gold blasted the idea of moving ahead on a project "that the two largest cities in the state don't support," a reference to L.A. and San Diego.
Southern California business leaders lined up strongly in support of the project, saying the tunnels are needed to secure future water supplies. The region relies on water pumped out of the Delta for about 30 percent of its supplies.
Last fall, Metropolitan committed to spending about $4 billion for its share of the twin tunnels. But with the valley farmers refusing to get on board, Brown's administration in February backed a more modest approach: Consider building a single tunnel first for about $11 billion and a second tunnel later if more dollars became available.
Metropolitan originally was set to vote on increasing its contribution by about $1 billion, to a total of $5.2 billion, for its roughly 50 percent share of the first tunnel, with the backing of the agency's executive staff. But late last week several board members began pushing for a plan the Southern California agency had pondered but then scrapped: Paying $10.8 billion for 65 percent of the full, twin-tunnel project. Board members said it was unlikely that a second tunnel would ever materialize under the "phased" approach.
Why does a second tunnel matter? Brown and his allies say the twin pipes would do a far more effective job of fixing the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta's fragile ecosystem while allowing water to move to the south state more reliably. He urged Metropolitan on Monday to approve the two-tunnel funding plan and applauded the vote late Tuesday.
“This is a historic decision that is good for California — our people, our farms and our natural environment," Brown said in a statement.
The tunnels would divert a portion of the Sacramento River's flow at a point near Courtland and ship it underground to an existing set of massive pumps in the south Delta at Tracy, essentially re-engineering the movement of water through the largest estuary on the West Coast. State officials say the project won't put additional strain on Northern California's own water supplies, an argument that tunnels opponents dispute.
Jeff Kightlinger, Metropolitan's general manager, said more water won't get sent south. Instead, the tunnels will serve an important role as the climate warms because south-of-Delta agencies will need to do a better job capturing huge gulps of water in limited windows when the rivers run high.
"If we have the ability to move water, we have places to put it," he said.
As groundwater deficits and environmental regulations put more pressure on valley farmers, Kightlinger said, the growers will eventually agree to compensate Metropolitan for at least a significant portion of its added investment.
Known officially as California WaterFix, the tunnels project still faces considerable hurdles. Although it's received environmental permits from the state and federal governments, it still awaits the blessing of California's water regulator, the State Water Resources Control Board.
Environmentalists and others are suing to block construction; they argue the tunnels represent a south state "water grab" that will actually worsen the Delta ecosystem. Tunnels foes, protesting Tuesday in front of Metropolitan's downtown Los Angeles headquarters, said the project would burden impoverished Southern California ratepayers when funds should instead be spent instead on recycling, stormwater-capture programs and other alternatives to improve supplies.
The financial package isn't complete, either, despite Metropolitan's huge contribution. Many south-of-Delta water agencies are still horse-trading to pick up the shares that other agencies don't want. Karla Nemeth, director of the California Department of Water Resources, told The Sacramento Bee last week that "we're very, very close" to getting commitments for the rest of the funding. She declined to offer details.
The south-of-Delta agencies that don't contribute run the risk of losing at least some of their Delta water in the coming years.
Kightlinger said Metropolitan and other participating agencies will soon start setting up financing and construction authorities to take the project to the next step.
Nemeth said construction wouldn't begin until 2019 at the earliest. The twin tunnels could take as long as 15 years to build.
In one respect, Metropolitan's vote represents history repeating itself. In 1960, after months of resistance, Metropolitan agreed to support the State Water Project, the elaborate north-to-south delivery system championed by Brown's father, Gov. Pat Brown. Metropolitan's support was crucial in persuading California voters to approve the project in November 1960.
The Delta is the hub of the State Water Project and its federal companion, the Central Valley Project. The side-by-side projects deliver billions of gallons of water each year from massive pumps at the south Delta to the parched southern half of the state, including 3 million acres of valley farmland.
Decades of pumping have helped pushed smelt, Chinook salmon and other fish to the brink of extinction. Because the fish are protected by the Endangered Species Act, pumps often have to be throttled back or shut off completely when the fish are in harm's way, allowing water that would otherwise be pumped south to flow out to the ocean.
Brown's administration says that if the tunnels aren't built, the south state will face crippling water shortages in the decades ahead. By altering the flows inside the Delta, Brown and his allies say, the 35-mile tunnels will prevent fish from getting harmed while making water deliveries more reliable.
Many environmentalists say diverting water from the Sacramento River will make the estuary saltier, hurting fish populations and agriculture. "This will harm the Delta and its environment," said Diane Burgis, a Contra Costa County supervisor who lives in the south Delta.
Others were outraged that Metropolitan would step up while most valley farmers have refused to contribute. "Southern California ratepayers will be paying for large corporate agriculture," said Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla of the anti-tunnels group Restore the Delta.
Dale Kasler: (916) 321-1066, @dakasler