Delta News

Delta tunnels dead? Southern California ready to plow ahead

Southern California’s mammoth water agency appeared ready to plow ahead with the Delta tunnels project Tuesday, despite a “no” vote by a giant bloc of San Joaquin Valley farmers that could doom the $17 billion proposal.

The Metropolitan Water District’s board of directors signaled that it’s ready to vote Oct. 10 on whether to pay for about one-fourth of the tunnels project, a $4 billion commitment. Metropolitan’s general manager, Jeff Kightlinger, urged directors to proceed with a vote as a way of determining whether the controversial project can be salvaged.

“We need to take our action because we need to understand who’s in this project, and who’s not,” Kightlinger said during a board meeting at Metropolitan’s Los Angeles headquarters.

Metropolitan’s share of the tunnels would be larger than anyone’s. “We’re an anchor tenant,” Kightlinger said. “No one’s going to make a decision to be in or out of this project until they really know what Metropolitan is going to do.”

Board member Larry McKenney agreed, saying a “yes” vote from Metropolitan could boost other potential partners’ confidence in the tunnels. He told fellow directors to set aside the implications of last week’s rejection by directors at Westlands Water District, an agricultural irrigation agency that was counted on to supply about $3 billion worth of funding.

“I don’t want to be influenced by them,” said McKenney, who represents Orange County on the Metropolitan board. “We can lead the way.”

Westlands voted against participating in the tunnels, known officially as California WaterFix, out of sheer sticker shock. U.S. water officials have settled on a cost-allocation plan that essentially excuses several major agricultural districts, ballooning the costs for other federal districts such as Westlands. South-of-Delta customers of the State Water Project, on the other hand, have been told they must participate financially or find another state contractor to take their share.

Because costs are being spread more widely, the project is more affordable for state contractors. If Westlands and other federal water customers won’t jump in, Kightlinger and other proponents have begun floating the idea of a scaled-down tunnels project that would only serve State Water Project customers.

But opponents of the tunnels say Westlands’ rejection effectively kills the plan altogether.

“All funding plans are out the window,” said Brenna Norton of the environmental group Food & Water Watch, in comments to the Metropolitan board.

The tunnels are designed to enhance deliveries to south-of-Delta water agencies by rerouting how water flows through the troubled Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. By diverting a portion of the Sacramento River at a point near Courtland, and shipping it directly to the giant pumping stations 40 miles south via underground tunnels, the project would protect endangered fish species. That means pumping could proceed more reliably.

Opponents say California WaterFix would worsen the Delta’s environmental problems and bring more harm to fish.

Dale Kasler: 916-321-1066, @dakasler