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MWD to debate its stake in $17B Delta water tunnels project

The Metropolitan Water District, which supplies imported water for Southern Californians, will be debating the $17 billion Sacramento/San Joaquin Delta project. Don Barrett via Flickr Creative Commons

A proposal to build giant water tunnels under the Sacramento/San Joaquin Delta suffered a setback last week when a key partner that was expected to help fund a big slice of the $17 billion project voted to pull out.

That leaves the Metropolitan Water District — which supplies imported water for 19 million Southern Californians — to decide whether it should fund its $4 billion share of the project known as the California Water Fix.

The plan would route Northern California water from the Sacramento/San Joaquin Rivers under the delta in big tunnels, delivering it to the north end of the California Aqueduct for its journey to Southern California. Now, the water flows across the delta, causing environmental problems. Proponents say the tunnels would improve the delta habitat.

Metropolitan Water District brings in water from Northern California and the Colorado River, and wholesales it to 26 cities and water agencies. Those agencies  would pass on the cost of the project to their ratepayers, which MWD estimates would add about $2 to $3 to households' monthly water bills.

But voting to fund the project is a tougher decision because the nation’s biggest irrigation district, the Fresno-based Westlands Water District, voted Sept. 19 to not participate.

Westlands was expected to cover 26 percent of the project, a $4 billion portion equal to MWD’s proposed slice. It is unclear how Westlands’ portion of the project would be covered.

MWD General Manager Jeffrey Kightlinger said the board on Tuesday is scheduled to debate whether to commit to its portion of the project.

"It's both cheap efficient and highly reliable and, in our view, a smart investment as an insurance policy for Southern California's water supply future, Kightlinger said. "[It's] like any big, controversial project, so the board may choose not to do it."

The MWD board is scheduled to vote Oct. 10 on the project.

Opponents of the tunnel project say it would not provide substantial new supplies of water to Southern California and that the cost per household would be higher than what the MWD estimates. They say the region's money would be better invested in projects that capture storm runoff and recycle wastewater.

"They do not fix California's water problems," said Adam Scow of Food & Water Watch. The environmental advocacy group has been speaking against the tunnels project at the meetings of some cities whose appointees serve on MWD's governing board.

He said the tunnels would cost billions of dollars and raise the water rates of families already stressed by utility bills.

"They do not provide additional water for Los Angeles when Los Angeles needs to spend and prioritize public dollars on fixing the breaking water mains, cleaning up local groundwater, and investing in water recycling," Scow said.