The governing board of Southern California’s largest water wholesaler voted Tuesday to spend billions more dollars on a water-delivery tunnel project, despite objections by Los Angeles’ representatives on the board and concerns it will sharply raise residents’ water rates.
The California WaterFix project is designed to divert water from the Sacramento River as it enters the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and carry it to existing federal and state pumping stations in the southern part of the delta through one or two 35-mile tunnels.
In the face of statewide funding shortfalls for the $17 billion, two-tunnel project, the state Department of Water Resources announced in February that the agency planned to pursue a staged construction approach, building only one tunnel initially at a cost of about $11 billion.
The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California board voted last year to contribute $4.3 billion toward the WaterFix project. But the board voted Tuesday to increase its investment to $10.8 billion, providing the remaining funding needed to build the full two-tunnel project.
“For decades, we have sought a solution to the problems of the Bay Delta, problems that put Southern California’s water supply at risk,” MWD board Chairman Randy Record said. “We finally have that solution, California WaterFix. We simply could not jeopardize the opportunity to move this long- sought and much-needed project forward.”
MWD officials said the agency’s increased investment in the project is expected to cost the average Southern California household up to $4.80 per month in increased water bills. Critics of the project have estimated a much higher impact, suggesting monthly bills for Los Angeles residents could jump by as much as $16 per month.
Gov. Jerry Brown hailed the MWD board’s decision. He has long supported the project, saying it will help environment by protecting fish and also securing a more reliable delivery system for the water.
“This is a historic decision that is good for California — our people, our farms and our natural environment,” Brown said.
Although the MWD staff initially supported the scaled-down, single- tunnel version of the WaterFix project, the agency last week began reconsidering the idea of funding the entire unfunded portion of the full two- tunnel version.
Five members of the MWD board appointed by Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti pushed for a delay in Tuesday’s vote. But the board voted 27-10 to fund the two-tunnel project, with all five Los Angeles representatives among the opposition.
Members representing some other areas of the MWD — which includes water agencies in Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino, San Diego and Ventura counties — argued that their regions do not have as much potential access to local water supplies as Los Angeles does, and are in greater need of a consistent supply from the MWD.
The Los Angeles City Council last month voted to oppose the WaterFix project if the MWD paid more than 47 percent of the $11 billion, one-tunnel version of the project or 26 percent of the two-tunnel, $17 billion project. With Tuesday’s vote, the MWD is committed to funding about 64 percent of the two-tunnel project.
The City Council has no direct control over the MWD board and can only advise how it votes.
Soon after the state proposed the single-tunnel plan, MWD staff outlined a proposal to pick up the unfunded portion of the two-tunnel project. Under its funding plan, the MWD would recover the extra investment by selling tunnel capacity to agricultural irrigation districts when WaterFix is built.
After initially floating the idea of funding both tunnels, MWD staff later notified the board it wanted to retract the idea because it was having trouble securing commitments from the irrigation districts. But the MWD staff announced last week it planned to present both the one-tunnel and two-tunnel options to the board at the urging of some board members.
MWD board Vice Chair John Murray Jr., who represents Los Angeles, said he opposed the two-tunnel project because there was “no assurance that in fact the Central Valley agencies are going to contribute, as had been anticipated. And frankly I think that, as do some others, that this may be an abrogation of our fiduciary duty to commit to that level of funding by a public agency without the assurance of how, in fact, we will recover the funds that this board apparently is prepared to commit.
The MWD is a wholesale water supplier which, along with the Los Angeles Aqueduct, accounts for roughly 85 percent of the city’s water supplies, with the total amount depending on the year’s environmental conditions.
The MWD is funded through property taxes and the price it charges for its water, so a decision by its board to help pay for the tunnels is likely to affect Los Angeles Department of Water and Power ratepayers and property owners. MWD General Manager Jeffrey Kightlinger has said funding the tunnels would not result in higher taxes because the project would be funded through the agency’s regular rate structure. He said Tuesday the two-tunnel project would increase a member household’s water bill by 1 to 2 percent.
The two-tunnel project would cost L.A.’s ratepayers an average of $1.73 per month in 2017 dollars, according to a 2017 report by Fred Pickel, director of the city’s Office of Public Accountability, which acts as a watchdog for the DWP. But Food and Water Watch, a nonprofit environmental advocacy group, has argued the project could raise household water bills from $7 to $16 per month for more than 40 years.