In a dramatic twist on the Delta tunnels saga, Southern California’s powerful water agency is exploring the feasibility of owning the majority stake in the controversial project, a move that raises fears of a “water grab.”
Under the plan floated Monday by three board members, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California would pour an extra $6 billion or more into the tunnels plan beyond what it has already pledged, enabling the twin tunnels to get built at the same time. Last week, facing a significant funding shortfall, the Brown administration announced it was scaling back the project to just one tunnel for now.
One of the Metropolitan board members, Brett Barbre, said Tuesday the agency’s increased involvement could ensure both tunnels get built. Metropolitan could then sell some of its surplus water to San Joaquin Valley agricultural districts that, to this point, have refused to pledge any dollars to the tunnels project because of its staggering cost.
Barbre said he believes the farmers “will eventually come in, and I think it’s important and imperative for Met to provide that leadership.....If we can work out a deal down the road where if they take the water, they pay for the water, that makes sense.”
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Metropolitan’s heightened role could revive the faltering twin-tunnels approach. The tunnels project, known officially as California WaterFix, is is in the midst of being scaled back. Lacking the $16.3 billion needed to fund both tunnels at once, Gov. Jerry Brown’s administration last week said it expects to phase in the project, starting with one tunnel for an estimated $11.1 billion. A second tunnel could get built years later if the rest of the dollars materialize.
So far the concept of Metropolitan taking on a larger share of the project is in its exploratory stages. The Metropolitan staff is pulling together financial analyses at the request of Barbre and fellow board members Rich Atwater and Steve Blois, who introduced the idea Monday at a meeting of Metropolitan’s water planning and stewardship committee.
Jeff Kightlinger, Metropolitan’s general manager, said Tuesday he’d like “Met to take a hard look at this.”
“I do think it’s important for people to step up and still do big things,” he said. “It would be good for California, frankly, if it were all done. It’s going to be hard to go back and do that second (tunnel) phase. ... Once you’re in the ground, you should build it the right size.”
The project, regardless of size, is to be paid for by south-of-Delta water agencies. The Brown administration is leaving it up to them to figure out the financing.
“It’s up to the participating agencies to hammer out the best way to fund the project they need to protect their water supply reliability,” said Lisa Lien-Mager, a spokeswoman for Brown’s Natural Resources Agency.
Urban agencies have embraced WaterFix because they can spread the costs over millions of ratepayers; Metropolitan believes its customers would get rate increases of $1.90 to $2.40 a month for its share of a single-tunnel project. The Metropolitan board voted last fall to contribute more than $4 billion for a roughly 25 percent share of the twin-tunnels project.
But farmers who rely on Delta water could see their costs quadruple or more. Only one agricultural district, the Kern County Water Agency, has expressed interest in participating.
A bigger role for Metropolitan raises the specter of a Southern California “water grab” in the Delta, where landowners, local governments and many environmental groups already view the project with deep suspicion.
“It would certainly raise a lot of concerns to have Metropolitan controlling the Delta tunnels,” said WaterFix critic Doug Obegi, an attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council. “Management of the Delta is supposed to be by the state on behalf of all the state’s citizens ... and giving Met greater control really undermines trust that the facility would be operated responsibility and that would be operated with the benefit of all Californians.”
Northern California critics were dismayed when Metropolitan spent $175 million buying a cluster of islands in the Delta in 2016, possibly to help with construction of the tunnels.
Obegi called the idea of Metropolitan controlling the Delta tunnels a “William Mulholland fever dream,” referring to the legendary and controversial Los Angeles water official who led efforts to build a 230-mile aqueduct to move water from the Owens Valley to the city.
Mulholland’s efforts to secure water from east of the Sierra Nevada mountains allowed Los Angeles to grow into one of the nation’s most populated and prosperous cities, and it forever enshrined his name on the iconic Mulholland Drive. But the loss of its water turned the once-fertile Owens Valley into a dust bowl.
Now wary environmentalists say Metropolitan, the successor to Mulholland’s agency, may be taking a similar approach to obtaining Northern California’s water.
“It certainly does have an even greater feeling of ‘Chinatown’ being revisited here in the 21st century,” said Ron Stork, senior policy advocate for Friends of the River. Mulholland’s maneuverings were highly fictionalized in the 1974 movie “Chinatown” staring Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway.
WaterFix is Brown’s plan for overhauling the Delta’s plumbing to ensure reliable water deliveries to farmers and urban Southern Californians and improve the estuary’s troubled ecosystem. Currently the giant pumps that deliver water south sometimes have to be throttled back to protect endangered Delta smelt and other fish species.
Jeffrey Mount, a water expert with the Public Policy Institute of California, said the idea of owning a majority stake in the tunnels makes a certain amount of sense for Metropolitan. The agency has a recent track record of building major water storage projects on time and under budget. The proposal also could pencil out for Metropolitan because it would offset the construction costs to its Southern California ratepayers by charging other water districts to use the tunnels.
Mount said the “political optics ... of a Southern California water grab” have discouraged Metropolitan from going this route in the past, but with the tunnels project bogged down, the agency may be willing to reconsider.
“One wonders if they couldn’t deliver the project more quickly and more efficiently,” he said.