Southern California water district completes $175-million purchase of delta islands

Southern California’s powerful water supplier has completed the $175-million purchase of five islands in the heart of the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, the ecologically sensitive region that’s a key source of water for the Southland.

The top attorney for the Metropolitan Water District said in a memo Monday that the agency had finalized the purchase of the islands from Delta Wetlands Properties.

The purchase comes less than a week after the state Supreme Court lifted an order that had barred the water agency from buying the islands. The order was imposed after San Joaquin County, other local governments and environmental groups sued to block the sale of the islands. 

Metropolitan is a wholesaler that uses water from Northern California as well as the Colorado River to supply more than two dozen cities and water agencies, including Los Angeles.

The water district has said the land may be used during the construction of the proposed delta tunnel system, a controversial $15-billion project that would divert Sacramento River water through tunnels directly to pumping plants in the southern delta. Two of the islands are in the path of the tunnels; the MWD’s ownership would end the need for eminent domain battles.

An MWD spokeswoman told The Times last week that the agency has yet to put forth a project for the land.

The acquisition of the land from Delta Wetlands Properties, a subsidiary of the Swiss insurance company Zurich Insurance Group, has generated division since it was proposed in 2015. The MWD board approved the deal in March on a 54% to 41% vote, with “no” votes from representatives of Los Angeles, Santa Monica and the San Diego County Water Authority.

Opponents of the sale filed suits claiming breach of contract or arguing that the water agency should have filed an environmental impact report. Attorneys for San Joaquin County and the environmental group Food and Water Watch blasted the water agency for sidestepping the California Environmental Quality Act, according to court papers.

The Supreme Court order from last week did not dismiss any litigation but cleared the way for the MWD to buy the islands while fighting the legal challenges. The litigation against the MWD is expected to continue for several months or years.

Times staff writers Bettina Boxall and Matt Stevens contributed to this report.

For more news in California, follow @MattHjourno.

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