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Why Southern California is calling for a do-over on its vote to bankroll the Delta tunnels

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The twin tunnels would take water from the Sacramento River and transport it under the Delta. See which islands and rivers they would cross.
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The twin tunnels would take water from the Sacramento River and transport it under the Delta. See which islands and rivers they would cross.

A historic vote on the Delta tunnels project is getting a do-over.

Southern California's powerful water agency — the Metropolitan Water District — said Thursday its board will vote again in July on whether to pay for the lion's share of the project, known officially as California WaterFix. The announcement comes after environmentalists and an open government group complained that Metropolitan directors violated the Brown Act before voting in April to support the tunnels.

The Brown Act sets rules intended to prevent government boards from making decisions behind closed doors.

Metropolitan denied violating the law but said it's calling for the new vote "to ensure that there is no question concerning the validity" of the agency's decision to help pay for WaterFix, according to a letter to project critics from Metropolitan general counsel Marcia Scully.

Metropolitan spokeswoman Rebecca Kimitch said Thursday the agency had no comment beyond what was in Scully's letter.

The vote, set for July 10, is likely to produce the similar results as the previous vote. The board's vote in April was 61 percent in favor of the project, and since then support within Metropoitan's ranks appears to have grown. Officials with the San Diego County Water Authority, who had fiercely opposed WaterFix, indicated last month they now support the project. San Diego controls about 20 percent of Metropolitan's board votes.

In April, the Metropolitan board agreed to spend $10.8 billion on the Delta tunnels. That's more than half the total estimated cost of $16.7 billion. Along with support from other south-of-Delta water agencies, Metropolitan's commitment put the project within striking distance of being fully funded after years of planning.

Before the Metropolitan vote, funding for the project was in considerable doubt.

Project backers say the tunnels would improve environmental conditions in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and enable the giant state and federal water projects to deliver Northern California water more reliably to San Joaquin Valley farmers and millions of Southern California residents, including 19 million people served by Metropolitan.

Environmentalists, however, say the project will actually worsen the fragile estuary's eco-system. Northern California officials call WaterFix a south-of-Delta "water grab."

The Brown Act places limits on private communications among elected officials before they vote on issues. Food & Water Watch, an environmental group, and the First Amendment Coalition complained that Metropolitan's board members engaged in numerous improper conversations with one another and with Gov. Jerry Brown and top officials of his administration prior to the April vote.

They said the Metropolitan directors, working behind closed doors, lined up the votes to support WaterFix before the April board meeting.

The ultimate vote "was nothing more than a rubber stamp," they said in a letter last month to Metropolitan officials.

Asked about the allegations of improper communications, Evan Westrup, spokesman for the governor, said in an email that "it's clear opponents of WaterFix are grasping at straws."

Despite Metropolitan's insistence the board did nothing wrong, announcing a do-over vote sends the opposite signal, said David Snyder, the executive director of the First Amendment Coalition.

"It's a conflicted message to say the least," Snyder said.

Brenna Norton, senior organizer at Food & Water Watch, welcomed Metropolitan's agreement to re-vote but wouldn't speculate on whether the big Southern California agency will reverse course on paying for the tunnels.

"The spirit of this is to make sure the agency is following the law," she said.

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