An influential group of San Joaquin Valley farmers Tuesday voted against helping to pay for the Delta tunnels, denying Gov. Jerry Brown crucial financial support for the $17.1 billion project.
Citing concerns about costs to individual farmers, Westlands Water District’s board of directors voted 7-1 against participating in the project, known officially as California WaterFix.
Westlands is the first major water agency to vote on the project, and other big districts are expected to make their decisions in the coming weeks. Because the sprawling agricultural district in Fresno and Kings counties would have shouldered about a quarter of the project’s costs, the vote could represent a fatal blow.
“I am not certain the project can go forward,” said Westlands General Manager Tom Birmingham shortly after the vote. Earlier, he cast the decision in starker terms, saying if Westlands voted against the project, the tunnels “will die, the project will be over.”
Brown’s office insisted Tuesday that the vote would not doom the tunnels, one of the governor’s major initiatives.
“There is one thing on which everyone agrees: Our aging water infrastructure needs to be modernized,” John Laird, Brown’s Natural Resources Agency secretary, said in a prepared statement. “Failing to act puts future water supply reliability at risk. This vote, while disappointing, in no way signals the end of WaterFix.”
A spokeswoman for Brown, who was in Connecticut on Tuesday, referred to Laird’s statement.
The “no” vote from a key potential backer of the largest water infrastructure project planned in California in decades reverberated through the state’s water-policy world on Tuesday.
“Absent Westlands, you don’t have a (tunnels) project,” said Jeff Kightlinger, general manager of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California.
Metropolitan, serving 19 million Southern Californians, had been the tunnels project’s primary cheerleader outside of Brown’s office. Metropolitan is expected to vote on the project next month.
“This was designed to be a comprehensive solution for California – both ag and urban, and really cover all the major parties,” Kightlinger said. “We would have designed a different project if it was just for the urban sector or something like that. But we didn’t. My board has been pretty clear ... they’re not in the business of subsidizing agriculture.”
With its millions of ratepayers, Metropolitan has a far easier case to make to its member agencies to persuade them to pay for the tunnels. Metropolitan estimates the average monthly bills for its customers likely would increase by just $1.90 to $3.10 a month.
It’s a tougher sell for farmers.
Westlands directors said they were uncomfortable with the costs that would be borne by the 600 farming families in the the sprawling district. Westlands predicted the cost for its water would climb from $160 per acre-foot to more than $600.
“We just can’t afford it,” said board member Jim Anderson.
Directors also were leery about spending a lot of money on a project that, while intended to improve water deliveries, included no guarantee that the supply of water would grow. “There’s just too many unknowns,” said director Larry Enos. “The only guarantee is that once we do it, we have to pay the bonds back.”
Not a single Westlands director was ready to vote in favor of the proposal. Westlands Chairman Don Peracchi, the only dissenting vote, said he wanted to give the Bureau of Reclamation a chance to reconsider its funding plan for the project.
Tunnels foes rejoiced at news of the Westlands vote.
Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla, of the group Restore the Delta, called it “a good day for California,” but she said she isn’t ready to declare victory in the fight against the project, which is vociferously opposed by many residents of the Delta.
“It isn’t over till Gov. Brown declares it’s over,” she said.
Westlands directors acknowledged that something needs to be done to fix the Delta, whose fish populations have plummeted in part because of decades of water pumping by the State Water Project and the federal Central Valley Project. Board members said they want state and federal officials to come up with a new solution that would be more affordable.
The tunnels, by rerouting how water moves through the Delta, are intended to help protect fish while enabling the project pumps to operate more reliably. The pumps deliver millions of acre-feet of water each year to the San Joaquin Valley and Southern California.
Birmingham warned it’s doubtful that a cheaper solution is in the offing. The longer California waits to fix the Delta, the more expensive it will get, he argued.
“Just the passage of time in this planning process (for the tunnels) has cost billions of dollars,” he said.
The directors also said they were particularly leery of how the federal government structured the plan. The Bureau of Reclamation had exempted certain federal water districts from having to pay for the tunnels.
Reclamation, citing complicated arrangements in how the CVP functions, has said it believes those districts don’t have to participate.
That decision shifted more of the burden to Westlands and its growers.
Some Westlands directors said they might be willing to delay a vote if they thought the Bureau of Reclamation would revisit the funding issue. Birmingham said he considered that unlikely.
The state and federal water projects pump enough of Northern California’s river water through the Delta to fuel the multimillion-dollar agricultural bounty of the San Joaquin Valley. The Delta also provides much of the drinking water to more than 25 million people in Southern California and the Silicon Valley.
But decades of pumping have contributed to a disastrous decline of fish in the Delta, with species such as the Delta smelt teetering on the brink of extinction.
The pumps are so powerful that they can cause portions of the San Joaquin River to flow in reverse at critical points, pulling fish toward the pumps and predators. Because of the Endangered Species Act, the pumps often have to be turned off or throttled back, allowing water to spill out into the ocean instead of being delivered to the south-of-Delta customers.
Brown’s administration said the tunnels would fix that. By diverting a portion of the Sacramento River at Courtland, well upstream of the pumping stations, the 40-mile-long twin tunnels would dramatically alter water flows through the estuary and largely correct the reverse-flow phenomenon. That would allow pumping to proceed more reliably, increasing deliveries to Westlands and other contractors, the administration said.
Nearly $250 million has been spent planning the project over the past decade, with most of the funding coming from south-of-Delta agencies like Metropolitan. The Southern California water wholesaler also bought tracts of land in the Delta along the proposed tunnels route.
Tunnels proponents achieved crucial victories earlier this summer, when two federal agencies that oversee the fish populations signed off on the project. Brown’s regulators also ruled that the tunnels would comply with the state’s strict environmental laws.
But the project has been highly controversial.
Environmentalists argued that the project would harm fish, not help them. Delta farmers and other residents called the project a “water grab” that would devastate the Delta economy. “Stop the Tunnels” signs dot Delta roads and are displayed in many store-front windows.
Sacramento County, one of several area governments suing to block the project, argued in court papers that the project would bring ruin to small Delta towns at the south end of the county.
The project was dealt another blow earlier this month when a federal audit revealed that it had received an improper $50 million subsidy from the Bureau of Reclamation. The U.S. Department of the Interior’s inspector general said the money was spent helping Central Valley Project contractors, such as Westlands, plan the tunnels project. Brown’s office had insisted that no taxpayer funds would go to the tunnels.
“After duping their own investors and hiding $50 million in what can only be seen as an illegal subsidy from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, Westlands saw the writing on the wall that they can’t afford this project,” state Assemblyman Jim Frazier, D-Discovery Bay, said in a prepared statement. “This is a tiny victory as we continue to demand greater transparency to the true costs of this boondoggle.”
Rep. John Garamendi, D-Walnut Grove, said he knows Delta residents were cheering Tuesday, but they shouldn’t assume the project won’t be resurrected.
“There’s a considerable relief, but we also know it’s not the end of the issue,” Garamendi said. “We know the Delta remains at risk.”