Big water tunnels project OK'd by Southern California water agency

The vote on proposed water tunnels between Northern and Southern California on Tuesday, Oct. 10, 2017.
The vote on proposed water tunnels between Northern and Southern California on Tuesday, Oct. 10, 2017.
Sharon McNary/KPCC

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The powerful Metropolitan Water District voted Tuesday to pay its share of the $16 billion project to build two massive tunnels to pipe water from Northern California to Southern California cities.

The vote, weighted by population represented by the agency’s 38 directors, was 69 percent for the project and 22 percent against. The no votes came from three directors who represent the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, as well as two directors from San Diego and one from Santa Monica.

The vote gives Gov. Jerry Brown's ambitious project an important boost of support after an influential agricultural group withdrew its support last month.

The tunnels, which have been discussed in one form or another for generations, would pipe water around the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta — where Sierra Nevada water flows toward the sea — to a system of canals that deliver water to farms and residents mostly in the southern half of the state.

Some speakers criticized the scale of the project, compared often to the 1960 voter-approved California Water Project, or the 1913 Los Angeles Aqueduct, as a relic of a bygone big-projects age.
“This is the last gasp of an unsustainable environmentally destructive way of managing California’s water supply,” said Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla of Restore the Delta.  
Others, like Beverly Hills City Councilman John Mirisch, see the project as vital to the future of cities like his.
He criticized, the “hypocritical and self-serving groups and individuals who refer to the Metropolitan board as the politburo and call us colonizers because of our efforts to share in the waters of our state, as is our right.”
Gloria D. Gray, who sits on the MWD board representing the West Basin Municipal Water District, said the cost to individual ratepayers was central to the debate. She said her agency’s more affluent customers who live in Malibu or Redondo Beach would pay about $5 more per month for the project, while those in less expensive areas like Inglewood would pay about 86 cents per month.
“The Water Fix is affordable to our community,” Gray said.
A big unknown going into the vote was how Los Angeles Department of Water and Power’s five delegates would vote. They are appointed by Mayor Eric Garcetti, who has championed a local-centric concept of increasing the amount of water through recycling, stormwater capture and other measures.
Three of his appointees to the MWD board voted against the tunnels. They were Mark Gold, John Murray and Jesus Quinonez. Two voted for it, Glen Dake and Lorraine Paskett.
Gold said he backed Garcetti’s vision to “transform the city from its 20th Century (water) importation model” to  to a more self-sufficient strategy.
“I have tremendous concerns about the our rate payers’s ability to pay for a two tunnel 9,000 cubic feet per second project with very uncertain cost impacts at the same tiem as paying for the mayor’s environmentally superior local water approach,” Gold said.
The MWD board was voting on more than just the concept of the project, it was also authorizing its general manager to enter two joint powers authorities, one to raise the money by issuing bonds, the other to design and construct the tunnels project.
Bundling those issues together in one vote was a stumbling block for some.
“MWD could be on the hook for hundreds of millions of dollars,” said Michael Hogan, who represents the San Diego authority on the MWD board. San Diego County Water Authority has been the most visibly reluctant to support the project. Two of its representatives to the MWD board voted against it, two more abstained.
Hogan said he supported the concept of MWD taking on 26 percent of the tunnels project, but not going ahead with financing and design mechanisms before it was known which other water agencies would support it.

This story has been updated.