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Vote on Southern California's investment in delta tunnel project could be a nail-biter

Vote on Southern California's investment in delta tunnel project could be a nail-biter
The Middle River in the Sacramento-San Joaquin delta. (Katie Falkenberg / Los Angeles Times)

With the city of Los Angeles and Orange County on opposite sides, Southern California's role in financing a massive water delivery project is likely to hinge on a few smaller agencies.

In what will be a crucial decision, the board of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California is expected to vote Tuesday whether to approve nearly $11 billion in financing to help build two giant water tunnels in the center of the state's waterworks or $5.2 billion to construct a single tunnel.

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Lobbying on the long-planned project continued Monday as Gov. Jerry Brown asked MWD directors to move ahead with both tunnels.

"Tomorrow you have a historic decision to make about the future of California and the basic security of our water supply," wrote Brown, who has made the project a priority of his administration. "I urge the board to support the full project — without delay."

Hours earlier the five MWD board members from Los Angeles signaled they might vote against both options because too many uncertainties hung over the much-debated proposal to revamp the way water supplies are routed through the Sacramento-San Joaquin delta.

Los Angeles has the biggest vote under MWD's system, which weighs the votes of member agencies according to assessed property values in their service areas.

Second to L.A. is the San Diego County Water Authority, which is also expected to oppose the project, along with Santa Monica.

But the agency with the third-largest vote, the Municipal Water District of Orange County, is aggressively pushing the $11-billion buy-in, which would finance about two-thirds of the full project.

"I think it's very close," said MWD director Brett Barbre, who is president of the Orange County agency. "They just need to get 11% more and they can kill us."

Both sides Monday restated familiar arguments about the project, known as California WaterFix.

The full $17-billion project calls for construction of a new diversion point on the Sacramento River in the delta's northern reach that would feed two 35-mile tunnels. They would carry supplies to the big government pumping operations that send water south to San Joaquin Valley farms and Southern California cities.

The project's underlying concept is that by partially supplying the export operations with tunnel water, the huge pumps would draw less water from the delta's southern portion, alleviating the pumping's harmful effects on the delta ecosystem.

When the San Joaquin Valley agricultural districts that were supposed to help pay for the tunnels voted not to participate, the Brown administration said it would initially pursue a smaller, one-tunnel project, to be financed by MWD and the other largely urban districts that get delta supplies from the State Water Project. Under that approach, the state said a second tunnel could be built later.

It didn't take long for WaterFix backers on the MWD board to suggest the agency step up and help fill the funding void to build both tunnels. They argued that agricultural districts would eventually buy some of the tunnel capacity and MWD would recoup its extra investment.

But Westlands Water District and other agricultural districts that depend on delta deliveries have so far declined to sign options or purchase agreements to buy future tunnel supplies.

That has raised the possibility that MWD — and Southern California ratepayers — could be stuck paying for a second tunnel that, according to MWD's analysis, would not send any more water to the Southland than one tunnel.

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"Making Southern Californians foot the bill for this project is irresponsible, and unfair to our ratepayers. I would support a one-tunnel solution that protects ratepayers, our local investments and our environment," Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti said Monday in a statement. "MWD's current plan does none of those things, and I cannot support it."

Garcetti appoints L.A.'s five MWD board members, who Monday sent a three-page letter to MWD's general manager, asking him to delay Tuesday's vote — something that is unlikely to happen.

The letter raised a host of concerns about pushing ahead with twin tunnels, arguing that MWD ran the risk of winding up with a largely unused second tunnel that could turn into a stranded asset. The delegation also questioned the wisdom of a $5.2-billion investment in a single tunnel, which would add roughly a billion dollars to the tunnel funding approved by the MWD board last year.

Asked if that meant the Los Angeles contingent might vote against both options, L.A. director John Murray replied, "It's not impossible."

Twin tunnel backers say the second tunnel would give managers more flexibility in operating the delta pumps, and do more to reduce the harmful effects of pumping operations on native fish.

MWD board Chairman Randy Record said Monday that he supports the $11-billion buy-in for the full project and thinks it would be worth it even if agriculture never contributes to the project.

In considering his vote, "I have to look at it as though … we're going to be building the whole thing and we're going to hold that infrastructure for our own use," he said. "I still believe that's the right thing to do."

Twitter: @boxall

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