A bloc of San Joaquin farmers tentatively endorsed the Delta tunnels project Thursday, becoming the first significant agricultural group to support the struggling plan.
But the level of support from members of the Kern County Water Agency, which serves much of the $7 billion-a-year farm economy at the southern end of the valley, was less than wholehearted. An estimated 48.5 percent of the agency’s water users said they’re interested in helping pay for the tunnels, which works out to about $1 billion in financial support.
That leaves the tunnels project, known officially as California WaterFix, still billions of dollars short of the funding it would need to bring to completion Gov. Jerry Brown’s plan to re-engineer the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and improve water deliveries to south state water agencies.
Brown and other state officials have begun talking about scaling the project down – perhaps building one tunnel instead of two – to make up for the expected shortfall in funding.
Nonetheless, Kern water agency general manager Curtis Creel said the level of participation could grow, and he said he considers the 48.5 percent figure a strong vote of confidence in the tunnels project as currently proposed.
“Has any other agriculturally based contractor come out with as large a number?” Creel said. “That’s a huge, huge number.”
Ted Page, a farmer from the Buttonwillow area and president of the Kern agency board, said, “It’s kind of like that wildfire up there. It can grow pretty fast.”
By contrast, the single largest agricultural contractor in the state, Westlands Water District, voted last month to reject any participation in the $17.1 billion tunnels project. Westlands had been counted on to contribute at least $3 billion to WaterFix.
Officials with the giant Metropolitan Water District of California, which committed more than $4 billion to the project earlier this week, said they were pleased with the support from the Kern County farmers.
“It’s a work in progress, but I’d take it as a step in the right direction,” said Roger Patterson, Metropolitan’s deputy general manager, who attended the Kern agency’s board meeting. The seven-member Kern board voted unanimously to notify the California Department of Water Resources of the level of interest in the project.
The Kern vote likely sets in motion several months of negotiations among various contractors that belong to the State Water Project. The state has said every south-of-Delta state contractor must contribute to the project or find another agency to take their share.
The State Water Project operates alongside the federal government’s Central Valley Project. Both projects pump billions of gallons of Northern California water out of the Delta to the San Joaquin Valley, Southern California and parts of the Bay Area.
Pumping is often constricted by protections for the Delta smelt and other fish protected by the Endangered Species Act. Brown says the tunnels, by re-routing how some of the water flows through the Delta, would protect the fish and enable the pumps to operate more reliably, increasing deliveries to the southern half of the state.
Practically all the south state agencies support the idea behind the tunnels, but cost has been a major stumbling block, particularly among farmers. Metropolitan can spread its $4 billion share among 19 million ratepayers and says most customers will see an increase of only $3 a month at most.
In agriculture, however, the costs are spread over a few hundred landowners. A Kern County agency staff report said the water that’s routed through the tunnels could cost at least $900 an acre-foot. Many Kern farmers currently pay around $200 for their deliveries from the State Water Project.
Even some of the largest agricultural barons of Kern County are still calculating whether WaterFix makes financial sense for them. Bill Phillimore of Paramount Farming, which grows pistachios and other crops for financier Stewart Resnick’s Wonderful agribusiness empire, attended the board meeting but wouldn’t say if Paramount would help pay for WaterFix.
“We’re still looking at it,” he said.