With the future of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta approaching a critical stage, a group of Southern California water agencies is working to buy four Delta islands, a move that has drawn accusations that the parcels could be used to orchestrate a south-state water grab.
The powerful Metropolitan Water District of Southern California and three water agencies in Kern County are working on a joint plan to buy the four agricultural islands, according to the head of the Rosedale-Rio Bravo Water Storage District in Bakersfield, one of the participants. Also involved are Semitropic and Wheeler Ridge-Maricopa water storage districts.
Eric Averett, general manager of the Rosedale district, said the buyers could pursue the same plan that the current owner has been working on for years: converting the islands into reservoirs as a way of moving additional water to agencies south of the Delta.
In addition, Averett said, the islands could be useful in forging ahead with the Delta tunnels project – officially known as California WaterFix – a $15.5 billion plan championed by Gov. Jerry Brown to re-engineer the estuary’s plumbing, shore up its ecosystem and improve the reliability of water deliveries to the San Joaquin Valley and Southern California.
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The islands are “kind of strategically located,” Averett said Monday. “It might facilitate the California WaterFix just because of where it’s at. There’s a variety of interests, I think, at play.”
Averett said “there’s still a lot that has yet to jell” before the purchase can be completed, including financial terms.
Still, the deal appears to be gaining steam. According to its published agenda, Metropolitan’s board of directors is scheduled to vote next week on authorizing a “conditional purchase and sale agreement” with Delta Wetlands Properties, an affiliate of a Swiss insurance company that controls the four islands.
A Metropolitan spokesman declined comment on the plan, and officials with Delta Wetlands couldn’t be reached for comment.
Four years into the state’s historic drought, the prospect of Metropolitan and the agencies from Kern gaining a foothold in the Delta, the hub of California’s man-made water-delivery system, is arousing suspicion in Northern California water circles. Metropolitan’s efforts to buy the four islands first became public in September.
“I can’t say I feel good about powerful Southern California interests controlling Delta islands,” said George Hartmann, a Stockton attorney who represents farmers on McDonald Tract, an island near the four parcels eyed by Metropolitan and the Kern agencies.
The four islands – Bacon Island, Bouldin Island, Holland Tract and Webb Tract – have been controlled for 20 years by Zurich American Corp., the U.S. arm of a Swiss insurer. Zurich has been working with Semitropic to gain permits to turn Webb and Bacon into reservoirs. Both lie below sea level some 7 miles from the government-owned pumping stations that deliver Delta water to the south state.
The two islands, which could store a total of up to 70 billion gallons of water, would be flooded in wet years and drained in dry years. Bouldin and Holland would be used for habitat management to offset the impact of flooding the other two islands.
As for California WaterFix, controlling the four islands could help facilitate construction of the twin tunnels. Getting the tunnels built will require initiating potentially lengthy and expensive eminent domain proceedings with Delta landowners, many of whom are opposed to the project. Two of the islands, Bacon and Bouldin, are situated along the proposed tunnels route.
Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla, executive director of Restore the Delta, said her group – made up of Delta farmers, environmentalists and anglers – fears that Metropolitan and the Kern water agencies would gain the opportunity to cut in line in the state’s complicated water-rights system because property owners along a waterway have senior “riparian” rights to that water.
“Whether there’s a (tunnels) project or not, it’s a way for them to hold onto the water,” she said. “And even though you technically can’t transfer riparian rights, there are ways to work the law so that you can move and transfer water as needed. Either way, it’s a continued push to use the Delta as Metropolitan’s water source so they can resell water.”
Meanwhile, the tunnels project faces an uncertain path forward.
On Oct. 30, stakeholders submitted final public comments to state and federal officials on the tunnels’ environmental impact, and the reviews were generally unkind. While labor unions and building trades associations in line to benefit financially from the massive public infrastructure project offered their support, a cadre of environmental groups, Delta farmers and Northern California elected officials blasted the project, saying the tunnels essentially would suck the Delta dry and worsen the estuary’s troubled ecosystem.
Their criticisms brought a swift rebuke from the governor.
“The Delta pipeline is essential to completing the California Water Project and protecting fish and water quality,” Brown said in a prepared statement. “Without this fix, San Joaquin farms, Silicon Valley and other vital centers of the California economy will suffer devastating losses in their water supply. Claims to the contrary are false, shameful and do a profound disservice to California’s future.”
Yet even those who stand to benefit the most from the project offered tepid support at best. These include Metropolitan and other south-of-Delta water agencies that are counting on the tunnels to enhance Delta water deliveries. Their support is critical to Brown’s plan because they would pay for the cost of building the tunnels.
In one typical comment, the Kern County Water Agency said the plan doesn’t appear to be “economically feasible” yet.
“Additional efforts need to be taken to reduce the cost of the project, protect the project’s (water) yield, and improve the likelihood that the project will be constructed and implemented in a manner that improves water supplies at an affordable cost,” the Kern agency wrote.
In a joint letter, the state’s two largest consortium of water agencies, the San Luis & Delta-Mendota Water Authority and the State Water Contractors, expressed similar concerns, saying they need “reliability in water supply and predictability in financial costs” before they can support the tunnels.
Even Metropolitan, which has been the most vocal proponent of the tunnels, said it fears the project will suffer from “operational constraints” that will hinder water deliveries in the name of helping the Delta’s endangered fish species. Metropolitan said the tunnels’ planners are relying on “untested or highly uncertain hypotheses” that would hurt water customers while doing little to actually help the fish.
With so much money on the line, experts said it isn’t surprising that some of the project’s advocates don’t want to appear overly enthusiastic about the tunnels.
“There’s an element of chicken in the discussion, where nobody really wants to give in first on anything for fear of undermining their negotiating position,” said Jay Lund, director of the UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences.
Agricultural districts in particular have complained that the tunnels project doesn’t contain adequate guarantees about how much water they’d receive out of the Delta.
State officials have said the tunnels would actually reduce, on average, the amount of water pumped to the San Joaquin Valley and Southern California. They’ve also said the tunnels would bring improvements to the Delta’s ailing ecosystem, enabling the pumping stations to deliver water on a more stable and reliable schedule.
A spokeswoman for Brown’s Natural Resources Agency said state officials plan to have the environmental documents finalized in mid-2016.