Just six months ago, a major Bay Area water district only would commit about a third of the $650 million Gov. Jerry Brown's office had hoped it would pay for his controversial Delta tunnels project.
In a sudden reversal, the Santa Clara Valley Water District board now may pay the full amount. The board is scheduled to vote on the issue Wednesday.
The district's possible change of heart comes less than two weeks after Brown's Water Commission recommended giving $485 million in funding from the Proposition 1 water bond to pay for building a new reservoir in the Pacheco Pass in southeastern Santa Clara County, a project the Santa Clara district has on its wish list.
The commission's staff not long ago said the reservoir project hadn't met the criteria to be eligible for any of the funds.
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The timing of Wednesday's vote — so soon after the Water Commission's favorable score for Pacheco Pass — has foes of the Delta tunnels project alleging Brown's office worked behind the scenes to deliver a quid pro quo: funding for a new reservoir in exchange for Santa Clara's full support for the tunnels.
"There's definitely too much smoke here to be a coincidence," said Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla of Restore the Delta.
Colleen Valles, a spokeswoman for the Santa Clara district, said the "insinuation is false" that Brown's office traded reservoir funding in exchange for votes on the tunnel money.
"There is no validity to this claim," said Lisa Lien-Mager, a spokeswoman for multiple state water agencies, including Brown's Natural Resources Agency and the Water Commission.
The allegations first were reported in The San Jose Mercury News.
"I was surprised when I saw that, because those processes are completely separate," Lien-Mager said. She noted that many projects, such as Sites Reservoir in the Sacramento Valley, initially had received a poor score from the commission staff, only to get a boost earlier this month after the commission revised its funding projections.
Pacheco Pass got a better score because Santa Clara provided stronger documentation showing why the reservoir met the funding criteria outlined under Proposition 1, Lien-Mager said.
The commission isn't expected to make a final decision on how distribute Proposition 1 funds until July.
Foes of the tunnels project long have accused Brown's Natural Resources Agency and its subsidiary, the Department of Water Resources, of being in the pockets of the powerful water districts that would benefit from the Delta tunnels. This is the first time those sort of accusations have been pointed at the Water Commission, which advises the DWR's director and oversees the distribution of Proposition 1 funding.
The Water Commission's nine board members all were appointed by Brown to determine which water projects get a share of the $2.6 billion in bond funds approved by voters in 2014 during the worst of California's historic five-year drought.
Purportedly independent, the Water Commission is housed in the same office as Department of Water Resources, which would operate the tunnels. State water officials and Water Commission also share staff.
"It appears that the Water Commission may be controlled by DWR, which isn't that big of a stretch, honestly," said Sacramento attorney Osha Meserve, whose clients include a number of opponents of the tunnels.
In October, the Santa Clara Valley Water District’s board voted 7-0 to give the Delta plan “conditional support” for the tunnels, but only if it involved a plan that would start with building one tunnel instead of two.
The board voted to commit more than $200 million to the project, far less than the $650 million Brown's office had requested. If the Santa Clara board votes Wednesday to go ahead with full funding, it would potentially raise some Santa Clara County residential water bills by as much as $10.26 a month in the coming decades, according to a staff memo to the board.
"Our board will determine how the agreements and participation tie into our guiding principles, and what this means for our valley, as the full project is before us for consideration," said Santa Clara's board director Tony Estremera in an emailed statement. "We are still aiming to achieve the best outcome for Santa Clara County, and that includes investing in infrastructure to ensure our water supply for the future, while also doing our part to protect the Delta environment."
Santa Clara's pending board action Wednesday follows the historic April 10 vote of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, which agreed to bankroll $10.8 billion of the $16.7 billion total cost of the tunnels project. The Metropolitan vote breathed life into a faltering tunnels plan that has been on the drawing board for more than decade.
With its 1.9 million customers, Santa Clara is a relatively small player among the San Joaquin Valley and Southern California agencies expected to fund the tunnels. Metropolitan has 19 million people in its service area.
But water policy experts have said that despite Santa Clara's comparatively small share of the funding, the district is symbolically important for Brown's tunnels ambitions because the Northern California agency's support helps stave off accusations of the tunnels being a south state "water grab" harmful to the northern half of the state.
Scientists say decades of pumping Northern California’s water through the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta has significantly contributed to the decline in the estuary’s ecosystem.
To protect species of nearly extinct fish, pumping often gets throttled back, allowing water that would otherwise be sent to farms and cities to wash out to the ocean.
The Brown administration says the tunnels, formally known as "WaterFix," would protect fish and enable pumping to proceed more reliably. Water would be rerouted and sent south via two giant underground pipes.
Environmentalists, Delta farmers and Sacramento Valley government officials say the WaterFix project would bring even more harm to the fragile estuary whose northern reaches start just a few miles south of Sacramento.