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In historic vote, SoCal agency picks up most of $17 billion water project

Louvers at the Skinner Fish Facility in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta divert most fish away from pumps that lift water into the California Aqueduct. Decades of fights among government and water agencies, environmentalists and farmers, in courtrooms and conference rooms have culminated in the Bay Delta Plan, which will soon be open to public debate.
Louvers at the Skinner Fish Facility in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta divert most fish away from pumps that lift water into the California Aqueduct. Decades of fights among government and water agencies, environmentalists and farmers, in courtrooms and conference rooms have culminated in the Bay Delta Plan, which will soon be open to public debate.
Mae Ryan/KPCC file photo

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Southern California's largest water wholesaler decided Tuesday to commit nearly $11 billion to build two tunnels under the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta to divert water south to Los Angeles and neighboring counties.

The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California's vote was a landmark decision following a decade of study and debate. The decision was a victory for water forces in Ventura and Orange counties that are more dependent on imported water, and it left the city of Los Angeles on the outs after its representatives on the board asked to delay the vote.

The board had been presented with the option of a two-tunnel project costing $17 billion — with $10.7 billion paid by  MWD — or a one-tunnel project costing $11 billion with MWD picking up $5.2 billion.

Tuesday's decision means MWD would pay about 65 percent  of the $17 billion twin tunnels project. The remainder of the cost will be shared by other water agencies that get water from the state-run system of aqueducts that import water from Northern California. The vote left open the possibility that some of MWD's outlay could be reimbursed by agricultural water users in the San Joaquin Valley.

Dissenting votes came from Los Angeles, San Diego, Santa Monica and San Fernando water district representatives. The votes are weighted by the property valuation of each agency's service area, with 61 percent favoring the two tunnels.

I don’t get an MWD water bill, why should I care?

A portion of any money spent by MWD on the project would be passed on to ratepayers of the retail agencies that provide them water.

The MWD imports water from the Colorado River and Northern California and resells it to local water utilities. Some 19 million Southern Californians from the Inland Empire to San Diego pay for that water through their local utility bills.

Tuesday’s vote commits MWD to put in $10.8 billion for two tunnels. That means it would  pay for about 65 percent of the project. Individual households would see an average increase in month water bills of about $4.80 per month.

That figure is an average for all water consumers across MWD's service area from the Inland Empire to San Diego. The actual amount that local water bills would rise in specific utility areas depends on the amount of imported water that the utility uses.

In Los Angeles, the ratepayer advocate for the Department of Water and Power estimated home water bills would rise by about $2.52 per household. Water would be delivered from the project starting in 2034.

How was this decision made?

Metropolitan Water District serves utilities providing water to about half the population of California, but within that service territory, different regions called for different versions of the project.

More than 70 individuals spoke for and against the tunnels project before the vote.

The water tunnels question pitted Los Angeles and San Diego county water districts, which leaned toward a one-tunnel option, against water agencies from Orange, Ventura and Inland counties, which preferred two tunnels.

MWD board votes are weighted by property valuation, with Orange County, Los Angeles and San Diego all big players with substantial proportions of the vote.

When it came time to vote, MWD directors representing the city of Los Angeles and San Diego County Water Authority said the vote on the two-tunnel project should be delayed to allow them to better analyze the finances of the project. The financial risk is higher if the project is completed without Central Valley water agencies helping out.

"We'd be paying an extra six billion dollars for a project with no extra water, and to me, that seems to me to be quite alarming," said Mark Gold, an MWD director who represents the city of Los Angeles. He said directors received the one- and two-tunnel options as late as Friday afternoon, without sufficient time to understand the options.

He said a Delta water quality plan that could determine how much water could flow into the tunnels had not been completed, leaving the MWD board unclear how much water they could actually receive from the tunnel. Additionally, he complained that the project was using a 2009 cost estimate, but might not break ground for another decade after any litigation to stop the project was resolved.

MWD Director Jesús Quiñonez, representing Los Angeles city, invoked ratepayers who "are one bill away from being homeless," and called for a delay in the vote.

Lorraine Paskett, who also represents L.A. on the MWD board,  called the two-tunnel option vote a "fabricated emergency," and said she was "disappointed in the process." She said approving a two-tunnel option that costs MWD a lion's share of the costs would wrongly saddle Southern California ratepayers with fees for a project that would benefit the entire state.

Orange County communities are heavily dependent on imported water supplies from MWD. About half the population gets nearly all its water from imports. The Municipal Water District of Orange County voted unanimously last week to support the two-tunnel option. The agency has four seats on the MWD board, and it controls about 17 percent of the MWD vote.

Larry Dick, from the Municipal Water District of Orange County, said a vote for the two-tunnel option was the best way to protect the investment the MWD made in the 1960s with the State Water Project canal.

Los Angeles and San Diego have been less enthusiastic about the two-tunnel option. Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti has said he opposed a two-tunnel project because he expects the city to become more self-sufficient in its water supply.

Randy Record of the Eastern Municipal Water District, who chairs the MWD board, chided Los Angeles for hanging back from the opportunity to support the tunnels. He noted that the city of L.A. has its own aqueduct to bring water from the Eastern Sierra. Other water users in the MWD are far more dependent on the agency's imported water.

A coalition of Los Angeles ratepayers, environmental groups like Food & Water Watch and the Sierra Club and some others preferred no tunnel be built. Their position was that the region could do more to capture and reuse local storm water and clean polluted groundwater.

Businesses tended to support the full two-tunnels project.

"Business runs on water," said Scott Smith, CEO of the Cerritos Regional Chamber of Commerce. "We believe the ideal project would be the two tunnels."

Jeff Allred of the San Gabriel Valley Economic Partnership said MWD should do at least the first phase of the project.

What problem are the tunnels designed to solve?

About one-third of the water Southern Californians use comes from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta via the State Water Project canal, but MWD says that supply is at risk.

Drawing water from the south end of the Delta into the State Water Project and Central Valley Project canals was causing the natural flow of water toward the ocean to reverse, harming Delta fish. In drier years, the need to protect the low salinity of Delta water limited the amount of water that could be pumped.

Also, climate change is projected to deliver less snow and more rain to the watershed feeding the Delta. The tunnels' proposed three new intakes positioned at the north end of the Delta were expected to be able to capture more of the sudden rain runoff that now flows out to the ocean.

The water conveyance system could also be vulnerable to earthquakes or levy breaks, the agency has said.

What solution was proposed?

MWD and other water users on both the State Water Project and Central Valley Project spent a decade studying the possibility of building new water intakes at the north end of the Delta and sending the water in massive underground tunnels to the south and into the two canals.

The two-tunnel solution was intended to stop that harmful reverse flow of Delta water and reduce the environmental damage. It would deliver more water directly from the rivers up north to the canals at the south end of the Delta.

Didn’t MWD already vote to support two tunnels?

Yes. But then things changed.

The MWD board voted in October to support the $17 billion two-tunnel option. MWD’s share of the overall cost would have been about $4.3 billion and about 26 percent of the overall project cost.

After that vote, some of the big San Joaquin Valley agricultural water users who had been expected to pitch in to build the tunnels did not have the cash flow or willingness to pay their expected share up front.

With those water agencies out of the picture, the tunnels project suddenly had a big funding gap, which forced MWD and state policy makers to make a decision – pay more, or downsize the project.

In February, Gov. Jerry Brown called for just one $11 billion tunnel to be built now and a second tunnel later. MWD management followed along, analyzing the project as a single-tunnel effort.

But then came the big zig-zag: After Brown's announcement, several MWD board members from Orange County said they still wanted to know what it would take for MWD to push for two tunnels, even if it meant picking up a larger share of the cost.

In late March MWD General Manager Jeffrey Kightlinger told the board he preferred two tunnels, if he could get commitments from some of the Central Valley agricultural water contractors to buy into the project after it was built.  If MWD were to cover the funding gap, it would pay 64.6 percent of the two tunnels project — up to $10.8 billion — with no guarantee that the agricultural users might later reimburse MWD.

But then, after finding that Central Valley water agencies were still unwilling to commit to the project, Kightlinger reversed course and recommended MWD fund one tunnel.

Orange County board members of MWD still wanted two tunnels to be considered, so Kightlinger added the two-tunnel option to Tuesday's agenda, setting up a difficult choice for the MWD board.