Southern California's powerful water agency reaffirmed its commitment to the Delta tunnels project Tuesday, agreeing for a second time to spend nearly $11 billion on a majority stake in the twin tunnels.
The vote by the board of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California keeps the controversial $16.7 billion project moving forward, although plenty of hurdles remain before construction can begin, including numerous court challenges.
Metropolitan's board already voted in April to approve a $10.8 billion investment in the project, known officially as California WaterFix, which is designed to shore up deliveries of Northern California river water to the south state while reducing the environmental harm done to the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.
The board took a second vote after environmentalists and an open-government group charged that Metropolitan directors violated the Brown Act before they took their April vote.
The Brown Act, aimed at preventing closed-door decision making by public bodies, limits the communication among board members before they take their votes.
Metropolitan officials denied violating the law but said they would take a new vote to erase any questions about the outcome. Nevertheless, board members opposed to the tunnels said they weren't satisfied that Metropolitan had followed the rules. "It's not our finest hour," said board member Lorraine Paskett from Los Angeles.
Despite claims of backroom dealings, Tuesday's vote was almost identical to April's: 60 percent to 39 percent under Metropolitan's voting system, which is weighted by property values. Directors from Los Angeles and San Diego opposed the project, just as they did in April.
The vote commits Metropolitan to financing roughly a two-thirds share of the project even though Metropolitan's 19 million customers get only about one-quarter of the water that's pumped out of the Delta.
Metropolitan in effect is taking over payment for hundreds of San Joaquin Valley farmers who have refused to participate because of fears about WaterFix's costs. Metropolitan believes that it can recoup the additional costs by eventually persuading at least some farmers to pay for water that flows through the tunnels.
Critics of the project say the massive underground tunnels would do more harm to the Delta, not less. In addition, they said a recent proposal by the State Water Resources Control Board could undermine the viability of the tunnels. That proposal calls for more water to flow naturally through the Delta — and out to the ocean — leaving less for pumping to the south state.
Mark Gold, a board member from Los Angeles, criticized his colleagues for voting on WaterFix without first analyzing the impact of the state water board's plan. "This vote is premature without such analysis," he said before casting his vote against the tunnels.