Water & Drought

Gov. Jerry Brown urges 'yes' for both Delta tunnels. Will that sway crucial vote?

Gov. Jerry Brown, in a last-minute bid to forge ahead with one of his legacy projects, urged Southern California's big water agency Monday to support a plan to build the two Delta tunnels simultaneously.

Brown sent a letter to the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California supporting the ambitious $16.7 billion effort to build both Delta tunnels together. In the letter, the governor essentially backed away from a plan, supported by his administration just a few weeks ago, to explore building the two tunnels in phases to address funding shortfalls.

Just 24 hours before the water district decides the fate of the tunnels, Brown said building the controversial project in stages actually could bring problems of its own.

"Staging its construction may seem plausible, but it will actually risk serious delay in permitting and jeopardize the entire project," he wrote. "Overall costs would, of course, rise. That is why I urge the Board to support the full project — without delay."

The tunnels project, known officially as California WaterFix, is supposed to shore up water deliveries through the Delta and would be paid for by south-of-Delta water agencies.

The project has a $5 billion to $6 billion deficit because most San Joaquin Valley agricultural water districts, leery of the cost, have declined to participate. That prompted Brown's administration to back a plan delaying the second tunnel until funding is available.

Metropolitan's board has already agreed to contribute $4 billion to the project and is set to vote Tuesday on one of two options to increase its involvement: Spend $5.2 billion to pay for Metropolitan Water District's 50 percent share of a single tunnel; or spend $10.8 billion to pay for about 65 percent of the costs of the twin tunnels, then negotiate agreements with Valley farmers to sell capacity in the tunnels.

Metropolitan's own staff is recommending the smaller investment because the agency hasn't been able to make any deals yet with farmers. The vote is expected to be close.

If the water district chooses the larger investment, the project will be largely funded at that point. Although environmentalists and other project opponents are still fighting WaterFix in court, construction could begin in 2019.

Brown's administration says the tunnels would improve water deliveries while reducing the environmental damage committed when water is pumped out of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. Critics say the plan would actually worsen the estuary's environmental problems.

Brenna Norton, the Southern California organizer for project foe Food & Water Watch, said it's unfortunate Brown has decided to go all-in on a project that she says would raise rates for Southern California ratepayers with no promise of additional water supplies.

"It's the wrong direction for California water," Norton said.