Water & Drought

Two major water agencies consider buying Delta islands

A view of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta looking north at Bradford Island with Jersey Island in the foreground separated by the San Joaquin River.
A view of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta looking north at Bradford Island with Jersey Island in the foreground separated by the San Joaquin River. Sacramento Bee file

Two of California’s largest and most aggressive water agencies have discussed buying four islands in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, prompting accusations by environmentalists and Delta farmers that the land purchases could be used to engineer a south state water grab.

Westlands Water District and Metropolitan Water District of Southern California have considered buying a collection of islands known as the Delta Wetlands Properties, according to recent meeting agendas for the two agencies. However, a Westlands spokesman said Monday the big Fresno-area agricultural district doesn’t expect to make a purchase offer.

Control of the islands could yield significant advantages as water agencies both south and north of the Delta continue to wrestle over limited water supplies in the fourth year of drought. Buying the islands would not automatically give the new owners control of the associated water rights. But they could apply to the state for the right to take more water in wet years.

In normal years, enough water is pumped out of the Delta to serve 3 million acres of farmland and 25 million urban Southern Californians.

The four Delta islands, now used for farming, are controlled by Zurich American Corp., the U.S. subsidiary of a Swiss insurer. Zurich has been trying for 20 years to convert the islands into giant for-profit reservoirs that could be used to store and ship water to big customers south of the Delta.

Purchase of the islands also could play into ongoing negotiations over the Delta tunnels project, a controversial $16 billion plan to channel water from the north part of the Delta to existing pumping stations in the south. By purchasing the islands, Metropolitan and Westlands would eliminate the need for contentious eminent domain proceedings in that part of the project, said Craig Wilson, a former staff attorney with the State Water Resources Control Board.

The project, championed by Gov. Jerry Brown, has been touted as a way to improve the reliability of water deliveries to Metropolitan, Westlands and other agencies south of the Delta. The four islands are adjacent to the path of the proposed tunnels.

Michael George, the state’s Delta watermaster, said one of the islands could be used to stockpile fill dirt unearthed by the twin 30-mile-long tunnels, at least temporarily. George said he wasn’t aware of possible interest in the islands by Metropolitan and Westlands.

Wilson said Metropolitan and Westlands also could be interested in the islands simply for their access to generous amounts of water. The four islands come with riparian water rights that can be used only on the adjacent lands. But the two agencies could seek state approval to store that water during wet years, for later shipment south.

“It’s a potential two-for-one for them,” said Wilson, who previously served as the Delta watermaster, overseeing the enforcement of water rights in the 600,000-acre region. The four islands total 20,000 acres of land.

Metropolitan spokesman Bob Muir declined comment Monday. The agency’s real property committee discussed the issue in closed session Tuesday, according to agenda materials. Muir said later in the day that no action was taken.

Westlands hasn’t made any offer to acquire the properties “and I do not anticipate that the district will make such an offer,” said Johnny Amaral, the district’s deputy general manager of external affairs, in an email to The Sacramento Bee. Agenda materials show that Westlands’ water policy committee discussed the matter in closed session last week.

Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla, executive director of Restore the Delta, a coalition of environmentalists and Delta farmers, said it’s not surprising that Metropolitan, with its deeper pockets, would be more interested than Westlands in trying to acquire the islands.

“This is a way for the Metropolitan Water District to get a foothold in the Delta for greater water supply,” she said. Owning the islands, with its access to water, could be a great strategic advantage for Metropolitan whether the tunnels get built or not, she said.

Rick Stephens, asset manager for Martinez-based Delta Wetlands Properties, said he couldn’t comment on the agenda items. He said the company is forging ahead with its plans for a storage project, but the land could be for sale once the permitting for that is done.

“We’re working on our project,” Stephens said. Asked about Metropolitan’s interest, he said, “I don’t know what’s going on with them. You saw what I saw. You saw Met’s agenda. I don’t have any input on their agenda.”

As currently conceived, the Delta Wetlands project revolves around two islands: Webb Tract and Bacon Island, located just seven miles from the pumping plants near Tracy that ship water to the San Joaquin Valley and Southern California. The two bowl-shaped islands, which sit below sea level, would be flooded during wet years and could store up to 215,000 acre-feet of water. That’s 70 billion gallons.

“In dry years, it can be delivered where it is needed,” reads a description of the project on Delta Wetlands’ website. An influential Kern County water agency, the Semitropic Water Storage District, has worked with Delta Wetlands as a partner in the project.

Two other nearby islands, Bouldin Island and Holland Tract, would continue to be farmed but would also be used for habitat management to offset the impact of flooding Webb and Bacon, according to environmental documents on Delta Wetlands’ website.

Dale Kasler: 916-321-1066, @dakasler