Why Southern California reluctantly backed the State Water Project
In 1960, the water barons of Los Angeles stood between Gov. Pat Brown and his dream of building a network of dams and canals to make the southern half of California bloom. He beat them – just barely, after weeks of public arm-twisting – and the State Water Project was born.
Now Brown’s son, the current Gov. Jerry Brown, is calling on Southern California to support another massive water project – the Delta tunnels, a controversial plan aimed at fixing the system his father helped build. The difference this time is that Southern California has become heavily reliant on the State Water Project, is a leading advocate for the tunnels, and could be the lifesaver that keeps the younger Brown’s troubled project from utterly collapsing.
On Tuesday, the board of the powerful Metropolitan Water District of Southern California will decide whether to commit billions of dollars to construction of the Delta tunnels. If Metropolitan votes in favor of the tunnels, as expected, it would provide a desperately needed boost for a project that’s hanging by a thread, following a resounding rejection last month by another major water agency, the Westlands Water District.
Metropolitan would provide about a quarter of the funding for the $17.1 billion project, so by itself a “yes” vote from the Southern California agency wouldn’t be enough to save the tunnels. But it would keep the process alive and give Brown’s administration some breathing room to develop an alternative plan if Westlands doesn’t change its mind. Conversely, a “no” vote from Metropolitan would almost certainly doom the project.
California WaterFix, as the project is officially known, can’t advance “until we at least know a baseline of who’s in and who’s out,” said Metropolitan general manager Jeff Kightlinger, an outspoken proponent of the tunnels. Two other major agencies are expected to vote on WaterFix in the days after Metropolitan: the Kern County Water Agency and Santa Clara Valley Water District.
In a sense, Kightlinger is banking on history repeating itself. Metropolitan’s board rejected Pat Brown’s State Water Project four times in 1960 before reversing course. He’s hoping that in 2017 Westlands, which provides irrigation water for a half-million acres of farmland in the San Joaquin Valley, will reconsider and support the tunnels. The farmers who control Westlands like the concept but voted against WaterFix because they said the price was too high, largely because of a cost-allocation formula imposed by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.
“It was the right thing (in 1960) for Met to get to ‘yes,’” Kightlinger said. “It was the right thing for California and Southern California. It would be the right thing for Westlands to get to ‘yes.’”
California already had a major water project when Pat Brown took office in 1959. But the federal government’s Central Valley Project, launched during the 1930s, reached only about halfway down the San Joaquin Valley. Brown believed California’s long-term prosperity depended on bringing Northern California’s river water to the farmers of Kern County and the vast urban territory of Southern California. Because the northern end of the system would consist of a new dam at Oroville, he originally called it the Feather River Project.
A $1.75 billion bond issue breezed through the Legislature and was placed on the November 1960 ballot for voter approval. But Brown knew it wouldn’t win without heavy turnout from Southern California. And he was unlikely to get voter support from the south state unless the project first secured a contract to sell water to Metropolitan, the massive wholesale agency that served 7.5 million customers at the time, from San Diego to Riverside.
Getting the green light from Metropolitan proved extremely difficult.
Metropolitan had more than enough water back then. There were ample supplies from the Colorado River Aqueduct, and the city of Los Angeles was also fed by water imported from the Owens Valley. Metropolitan was leery of signing a contract committing itself to purchasing water from Brown’s project.
“They thought their water supply was secure, and they (didn’t think) they would need State Water Project water,” said Tim Quinn, a former deputy general manager at Metropolitan.
The agency also had legal concerns: Metropolitan feared that importing a generous new supply from the Sacramento Valley might weaken its argument in a pending court fight with Arizona and other Southwestern states over the allocation of water from the Colorado River.
There was also the issue of money. Metropolitan’s 74-year-old board chairman, Joseph Jensen, thought Brown’s plan was too expensive – and was structured in a way to subsidize the Kern County farmers and make Metropolitan pay more than it should have. Metropolitan’s share of the costs exceeded $800 million, or $6.7 billion in today’s dollars.
“Metropolitan was simply … suckered into paying for the development of water for other parts of the state which are not a part of Metropolitan Water District,” Jensen said in a 1970 interview conducted by the UCLA Library Center for Oral History Research.
Above all, it was a power struggle. Metropolitan wanted authority over how the water would get delivered through its territory. Brown refused to yield.
“They wanted to control the water in Southern California,” Brown said years later, in an oral history interview conducted by UC Berkeley’s Bancroft Library. “As a matter of fact, they wanted to control the water in California.”
What ensued was an extraordinary spell of public feuding in the run-up to the 1960 election. Addressing a Sept. 14 Metropolitan board meeting, Brown pounded the table and told directors they were ignoring the will of the people. “You’ve been on a high horse,” the governor said.
Jensen accused Brown of employing scare tactics about water shortages – and suggested that if Metropolitan needed more water, it could build its own aqueduct to bring supplies from the Eel River, off the North Coast.
On Oct. 4, the board voted to refuse to purchase water from the Feather River Project, and fired off a telegram to Brown saying his plan was “wholly unacceptable” and “neither fair, just or equitable” to Southern Californians. Brown shot back the next day with a letter warning Metropolitan about the consequences of not falling in line.
“It is your right to refuse, but if you exercise that right, I think should be conscious that you are risking responsibility for a long and crippling delay in bringing urgently needed new supplies of water into Southern California – and just as urgently needed flood control to Northern California,” he wrote.
Splitting his time between two causes – the water bond and Democratic presidential candidate John F. Kennedy – the governor campaigned furiously through the fall. Three more times, the Metropolitan board rejected the water project, but its resolve was crumbling. Brown pointedly lined up support from Los Angeles’ mayor and the region’s business community.
Finally, on Nov. 1, just a week before the election, the Metropolitan board caved in and voted for the project, despite Jensen’s objections.
“We really shoved it down Metropolitan’s throat because they had to have water, and we were the bosses,” Brown boasted to the UC Berkeley interviewer.
Brown went to Los Angeles a few days later to sign the agreement with Metropolitan. Jensen was a no-show at the ceremony. When Election Day arrived Nov. 8, he voted against the water bond, just as he had at the board meetings. But with Metropolitan’s support, the bond passed by a scant 173,944 votes, out of 5.8 million ballots cast.
In the decades since, Metropolitan’s reluctant endorsement for the State Water Project has become a warm embrace. The major reason is that other water sources have faltered. A landmark 1994 victory for environmentalists cost Los Angeles half of its Owens Valley water, and less than ten years later Metropolitan had to surrender a significant portion of its Colorado River supply to California’s neighbors. The agency’s customer base has nearly tripled since 1960, to more than 19 million.
“Instead of having a soft landing on the cutback on Colorado River surplus water, they had to take a hard landing,” said Tim Brick, who was Metropolitan’s chairman from 2006 to 2010. “That really changed Metropolitan’s attitude.”
Another jolt came from a 2007 federal court case in Fresno. Judge Oliver Wanger, in a pair of historic rulings aimed at saving the endangered Delta smelt, ordered a substantial reduction in the amount of water that could be pumped out of the Delta. It was a wake-up call for water agencies south of the Delta.
“It was like, this really doesn’t work any more, we’re in a downward spiral,” Kightlinger said.
Kightlinger said the Wanger rulings focused Metropolitan’s attention on finding a way to repair the Delta. The answer, he said, lies in the tunnels – a $17.1 billion project that Brown’s administration says will improve water flows through the Delta, protect fish from the perils of the pumping stations, and enable the pumps to deliver water to the southern half of the state more reliably. Opponents say WaterFix will actually worsen the estuary’s ecosystem.
Few water agencies have advocated for WaterFix as enthusiastically as Metropolitan. Besides contributing more than $58 million toward project planning, last year it spent $175 million to buy five islands in the Delta to use as possible staging grounds for tunnels construction.
But with the board vote approaching, pockets of opposition, or at least skepticism, still exist within the sprawling water district.
Michael Hogan, a board member from the San Diego area, said he and other board members from San Diego think Metropolitan’s staff hasn’t answered all their questions about “what the risk and what the benefit is.” Mark Gold, a board member representing Los Angeles, said he and other L.A. directors aren’t sold on WaterFix in part because the city has a directive to reduce its reliance on imported water and create more local sources. Metropolitan’s board uses a “weighted” voting system, and the Los Angeles and San Diego contingents control a combined 37 percent share of the voting board.
The younger Gov. Brown met informally with several Metropolitan board members Thursday to urge acceptance of the tunnels project. Kightlinger said he thinks the board will agree to fund its share of WaterFix, but the vote could be close.
“I still have a lot of board members deeply concerned about the costs of this, the financing plan, whether or not we’re still subsidizing agriculture,” Kightlinger said. “The concerns are very reminiscent of where we were in 1960. … It’s not a slam dunk.”