Southern California's largest water agency Tuesday threw a lifeline to California WaterFix, approving a $4.3-billion buy-in to the water delivery project.
The closely watched vote by the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California board does not ensure the survival of the $17-billion project, which needs significant funding from other urban and agricultural water districts to move forward.
But it gives a much-needed boost to the long-planned proposal to build two massive tunnels under the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, the heart of California's complex waterworks.
The influential MWD staff has been a leading proponent of WaterFix, arguing that it is necessary to sustain delta deliveries that constitute roughly a third of the Southland's water supplies.
Gov. Jerry Brown last week personally lobbied board members on behalf of the project, a top priority of his administration.
During two hours of public comments before the vote, MWD's packed boardroom echoed with passionate arguments for and against WaterFix.
Opponents — mostly environmentalists and community advocates — complained that the tunnels would drive up regional water rates, harm the struggling delta environment and primarily benefit San Joaquin Valley agribusiness.
Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla, executive director of Restore the Delta, an anti-tunnel group, called the project a nostalgic effort to build a massive water project that the state does not need and that already faces multiple lawsuits.
A Beverly Hills City Council member retorted that project opposition was motivated by "anti-Southern California bigotry" and the parochial self-interests of delta growers.
Southern California business and labor representatives urged the board to vote yes, saying the tunnels were critical to preserving water deliveries that sustain the regional economy.
The urban and agricultural customers who rely on delta deliveries are supposed to pay for the tunnels, which would carry supplies from a new diversion point on the Sacramento River in the north delta to existing government pumping plants in the south delta.
The financing plan suffered a major setback last month when the Westlands Water District, the state's largest irrigation district, said its growers could not afford the tunnels and voted not to participate in WaterFix.
With MWD expected to pick up 26% of the project's costs, the agency's support is critical. The Kern County Water Agency board is expected to vote Thursday on its share.
If Westlands does not change its mind and other agricultural districts that receive delta supplies from the federal Central Valley Project don't step up, the project would have to be downsized to match the diminished funding.
The MWD board's motion to approve a 26% share of WaterFix costs and to authorize staff to enter several related agreements passed 28 to 6 with two abstentions.
Los Angeles' five-member delegation was divided, with three members — Mark Gold, John Murray and Jesus Quinonez — voting no, and Glen Dake and Lorraine Paskett voting yes.
The three who voted no said they would be willing to consider a smaller, less expensive project.
Earlier Tuesday, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti broke his public silence on the project. "I oppose the two tunnels as is. But I do support one tunnel," he said at a Sacramento Press Club luncheon.
Garcetti had been under pressure from both opponents and supporters to take a stand on WaterFix. Responding to criticism that he was dodging a controversial issue, Garcetti said he needed to take time to study the engineering and environmental aspects of the project.
The mayor said he opposed the current version for environmental and financial reasons.
"The ratepayers of Los Angeles will be saddled with a disproportionate share of building and construction" costs for a project that the city won't need as much in the future because it is working to reduce its reliance on imported supplies from MWD, Garcetti said.
Other no votes were cast by San Diego County Water Authority representatives Keith Lewinger and Michael Hogan, and Santa Monica representative Judy Abdo. Elsa Saxod and Fern Steiner of the San Diego authority abstained.
8:30 p.m.: This article was updated with details of the vote and Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti's comments.