What's at stake for Southern Californians in upcoming California Water Fix delta tunnels vote

The California Aqueduct runs near Mountain House sending water to Southern California as part of the State Water Project.
The California Aqueduct runs near Mountain House sending water to Southern California as part of the State Water Project.
Max Whittaker for KPCC

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The fate of a project that could cost Southern California water consumers billions of dollars hangs on a vote Tuesday at the Metropolitan Water District.

It’s the California Water Fix. A $17-billion plan championed by Gov. Jerry Brown to build giant water tunnels under the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta. It would change how Northern California water is conveyed to the southern part of the state.

Who votes on the project?

Metropolitan Water District sells water imported from the delta to 38 water utilities  in Southern California. And those utilities pass the cost of the imported water on to their customers in monthly water bills.  Each agency gets a vote on this big project. Their vote is proportional to the number of customers they serve. So a big agency like LADWP gets a big slice of the vote, and small agencies get way less.

Why is it controversial?

It's been opposed by environmentalists, economic justice advocates and those who say water agencies should be reducing reliance on Northern California water by increasing the amount of local water collected as runoff, or recycled or conserved.

The project is generally supported by MWD's member water utilities located outside Los Angeles  boundaries because they tend to be more reliant on imported water supplies than L.A. city. Business groups and unions want the project because a reliable water supply supports development, business and job creation.

What's the California Water Fix do?

Right now the water you see in the California Aqueduct canal as you drive along Interstate 5 -- that all comes from the Sacramento San Joaquin Delta. The water passes from the two rivers across the delta and gets sucked into the canal at the south end near Stockton. That causes some environmental problems, like intrusion of seawater into the delta and the demise of some fish and wildlife.

This project is intended to do two important things.

It is supposed to reduce the environmental damage to the delta and its wildlife by building new intakes at the northern end of the delta and transporting the water in two giant underground tunnels south to the start of the Aqueduct near Stockton.

It is also supposed to increase the reliability of that Northern California water supply. The idea is that by moving the water underneath the delta, it would take pressure off the aging levies that keep all that delta water from flooding homes and communities if they were breached in an earthquake or other disaster.

Big water agencies up and down the state have spent millions of dollars researching the feasibility of the delta water tunnels. MWD itself put $60 million dollars into the research, and its staff recommends the project go forward.

The MWD piece would be about $4.3 billion dollars – just over one-quarter of the entire $17 billion dollar cost. On Tuesday, the MWD’s board of 38 members, who represent millions of residents and water consumers, is scheduled to vote on whether to fund 26 percent of the statewide project.

What's been happening in advance of the vote?

One of the big concerns of the board members going into the vote is the funding gap created as  one important player in the deal has gotten cold feet.

Westlands Water District near Fresno voted two weeks ago to not fund its 26 percent of the project. It's the nation's largest agricultural district, and its withdrawal from the project creates a funding gap that others, including the MWD, might end up covering. That's not an attractive prospect for water agencies who are already questioning if the WaterFix is the right strategy.

Kern County Water District is expected to vote on its part of the project later this week.

There’s also been some arm-twisting. Last week  Gov. Jerry Brown met with 17 of the 38 MWD board members. MWD described the meeting as “informal,” but those 17 members represented more than 44 percent of the population served by MWD. If just one more member had been in attendance, the meeting would have been required to be held in public under the state’s open meeting law.

Brown did tell the Los Angeles Times after his meeting that the project could be scaled back in scope and costs to cover Westlands' withdrawal from the project.

What are some arguments for the tunnel?

Protection from natural disaster: A flood or earthquake that breaks the levies that protect homes in Northern California could also cut off the water imports many Southern California water agencies depend on. So a number of MWD’s water agency members have been saying they are for the tunnels.

More jobs and economic gains: Businesses and builders want the development that can come only from an assured source of water. Unions say yes, too. They see thousands of jobs.

It's a visionary, landmark project: This third pro-tunnels group compare this audacious public works project to the L.A. aqueduct built a century ago and the State Water Project canal approved in 1960. Both changed the region’s capacity to support development and millions of people.

What do opponents say?

The opportunity cost is too great:  Environmentalists like those in the Sierra Club and Heal the Bay say this project costs too much. They support alternatives that can increase the local water supply, like stormwater capture, wastewater recycling, and conservation. They also favor spending more to replace aging water mains that break and spill water onto city streets.

It doesn't accomplish environmental goals: Groups like the Natural Resources Defense Council say this plan doesn’t “fix” the environmental issues that it’s supposed to and that it won’t produce any more additional water for Southern California.

It will cost poor families too much: Those who advocate for the poor say families already pay too much of their household budgets for water. And they object that a lot of the water would be delivered to big farmers who grow export crops like almonds and pistachios.