A Bay Area water agency agreed Tuesday to pump $650 million into Gov. Jerry Brown's Delta tunnels project, providing a meaningful boost for the controversial $16.7 billion plan.
The 4-3 vote by the Santa Clara Valley Water District brings the tunnels project, which would overhaul the troubled heart of California's aging water delivery network, a step closer to being fully funded.
Just a few months ago the project, officially known as California WaterFix, was sputtering for a lack of funds. Brown's administration was forced to consider a phased-in approach that called for building one tunnel first and constructing a second tunnel only if enough money became available. WaterFix is to be paid for by south-of-Delta local water agencies that get supplies from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.
The original twin-tunnels concept was revived a month ago, when the giant Metropolitan Water District of Southern California agreed to spend $10.8 billion on the project. Metropolitan in effect is stepping in for San Joaquin Valley agricultural districts that have refused to support WaterFix because of its price tag. To recoup the costs, the big Los Angeles agency expects to sell some of the tunnels' capacity to the farm groups in years to come.
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Even with the support from Metropolitan and Santa Clara, the project still is looking for dollars. State officials have said they believe enough south-of-Delta agencies will pitch in to move the project forward. Karla Nemeth, director of the state Department of Water Resources, said in a prepared statement: "In the coming days, the state and the public water agencies funding WaterFix will enter into an agreement to implement final design and construction."
While environmentalists railed against the Santa Clara vote, Brown hailed it as a "courageous decision."
For Santa Clara, the vote represents an about-face of sorts. Last October, its board indicated it would spend only about $200 million on WaterFix, and only if the project followed the phased-in approach.
The Delta is the hub of the State Water Project and the federal Central Valley Project. The two systems deliver billions of gallons of water to 25 million Southern Californians, Bay Area residents and San Joaquin Valley farmers. Decades of pumping have devastated the estuary's eco-system and left several fish species nearing extinction, forcing pump operators to reduce operations occasionally to reduce the environmental damage.
Brown says the tunnels, by rerouting how some of the Sacramento River's water reaches the pumps, would allow the pumps to operate more reliability and with less harm. Environmentalists, Delta landowners and Northern California officials say the project would actually worsen the estuary's woes.