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Metropolitan Water District again approves delta tunnel funding

Metropolitan Water District again approves delta tunnel funding
The Middle River in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. (Katie Falkenberg / Los Angeles Times)

The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California Tuesday reaffirmed its approval of an $11-billion investment in a massive water delivery project with a vote that highlighted a deepening division on the agency’s board.

The re-vote followed a complaint that some board members had violated California’s open meetings law when they engaged in a series of phone calls and text messages prior to the board’s April 10 decision to finance two-thirds of California WaterFix.

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While denying that the communications amounted to a violation of the Brown Act, MWD scheduled another vote. The funding package passed with 59.57% of the vote, compared with 61% in April.

Representatives of MWD’s two largest member agencies, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power and the San Diego County Water Authority, again voted against constructing two huge water tunnels under the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

The Los Angeles delegation also criticized the behind-the-scenes communications, which MWD released in response to a Public Records Act request filed by two groups that challenged the April vote.

Transparency and “civility was lost,” said L.A. representative Mark Gold, who complained of “lies” by some fellow directors.

“It’s not our finest hour today or this April,” said L.A. representative Lorraine Paskett, who had made copies of the records and distributed them to board members.

“Just a handful of our board members were much better informed of what the vote would be. This is very disappointing,” she said.

She added that the politicking reflected an overall lack of openness about board matters.

The communications show board member Brett Barbre of the Municipal Water District of Orange County taking the lead in counting votes and rounding up support for the tunnels investment.

Metropolitan’s decision to shoulder much of the $17-billion bill for the twin tunnels kept the project alive after big agricultural districts in the San Joaquin Valley declined to pay their expected share of the long-planned project.

That refusal had prompted a move to settle for a less expensive, one-tunnel version, a change that Barbre argued would fatally delay the project by triggering another round of environmental reviews.

The texts also revealed state officials’ concern that if a final decision wasn’t made before Gov. Jerry Brown’s term ended this year, his successor could kill WaterFix.

Brown, a staunch supporter of the twin tunnels, phoned MWD board members before the April 10 meeting, urging them to vote yes.

In one text, Barbre told MWD General Manager Jeffrey Kightlinger to “make sure the Governor reminds Leticia [Vasquez-Wilson] that they took a selfie together at Jensen last year…Could be enough to flatter her into a YES vote.”

Tuesday, Vasquez-Wilson, who represents the Central Basin Municipal Water District and supported the tunnels in both votes, said she found “that comment very offensive.”

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MWD’s financial backing does not ensure the tunnels will be built. Opponents, which include delta interests and environmental groups, have filed a number of lawsuits challenging the project.

WaterFix also still needs key state permits that could reduce the volume of tunnel deliveries.

The battle over the tunnels is the latest in more than two decades of conflict over the environmental impact of delta deliveries to San Joaquin Valley agriculture and urban Southern California.

The huge tunnels would transport Sacramento River water 35 miles under the delta to the government pumping operations that send supplies south. That would reduce withdrawals from the southern delta that cause harmful reverse flows in delta channels.

Opponents contend the tunnels will inevitably be used to rob the failing delta ecosystem and its crashing fish populations of more fresh water.

Proponents, including many of the state’s biggest water agencies and San Joaquin Valley agricultural districts, say that without the tunnels, delta deliveries that make up an important part of their supplies will continue to decline.

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