The board of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California voted Tuesday to commit billions to a much-debated water project supported by Gov. Jerry Brown.

The estimated $17 billion project, which is officially known as the California WaterFix, would 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 two 35-mile tunnels.

Approval of the project ultimately lies with the state’s water boards, and the MWD’s vote does not guarantee that it will be built because enough water districts need to vote in favor for it to move forward. The MWD’s commitment to the project would be about $4.3 billion.

The vote was 28-6 in favor of funding the tunnels, with two abstentions and two members who did not vote.

The vote by the MWD was considered by some observers to be a make-or- break decision on the tunnels, as another major water agency, the Westlands Water District, last month rejected helping to pay for the project. The Coachella Valley Water District Board of Directors voted in favor of the project Tuesday.

Brown recently said that if the project does not get fully funded, a scaled-down version could be approached.

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 agency 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 would affect Los Angeles’ ratepayers and property owners. MWD General Manager Jeffrey Kightlinger said funding the tunnels would not result in higher taxes because the project would be paid for through the agency’s regular rate structure.

The 38-member MWD board represents each of the district’s 26 member agencies, including five members appointed by Mayor Eric Garcetti.

The L.A. City Council has no direct control over the MWD board and can only advise how it votes. Councilman Paul Koretz introduced a resolution on Friday calling on the City Council to officially oppose the project, but it was not voted on before the MWD board vote.

Some environmental groups are opposed to the project, including the Sierra Club and Food and Water Watch, which argue the tunnels could be harmful to the environment and not worth the cost.

“Food and Water Watch is disappointed by Metropolitan Water District’s vote to allocate more than $4 billion toward a wasteful Delta Tunnels project that would force higher water bills and property taxes on Southern California families,” Brenna Norton of Food and Water Watch said. “It is unfair to raise rates for a project that will needlessly make Southern California’s water more expensive, while benefiting corporate agribusinesses that grow excessive amounts of almonds and pistachios in the desert for export.”

The tunnels are supported by Brown, who has argued they will help the environment by protecting fish and also securing a more reliable delivery system for the water.

The tunnels would cost L.A.’s ratepayers an average of $1.73 per month in 2017 dollars, according to a report by Fred Pickel, director of the city’s Office of Public Accountability, who acts as a watchdog of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power.

Food and Water Watch has argued the cost will be higher than Pickel is estimating and could raise household water bills from $7 to $16 per month for over 40 years.

Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla, executive director of Restore the Delta, said the project will raise rate and provide no increased reliability in water service.

“MWD may have won the battle, but we know the tunnels will never be built because economics, science and law will carry us through the permitting processes and litigation, ensuring victory,” she said.

But Charles Wilson, executive director of the nonprofit Southern California Water Committee, said the MWD vote “marks a historic day in ensuring the vitality of the Southern California region.”

“Water is life, and for the many cities in Southern California that depend on the Sierra Nevadas for the water supply, California WaterFix is mission critical,” he said.

—City News Service

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