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Where to now on L.A. water, Mr. Mayor?

Where to now on L.A. water, Mr. Mayor?
L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti speaks in Los Angeles on Sept. 27. (Los Angeles Times)

After Tuesday's vote by the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California to participate in a giant water delivery project more than 300 miles to the north, Los Angeles is left to wonder: Are we all in on the delta tunnels and their $17 billion price tag ($4.3 billion for Southern California)? Are we all out? Does Mayor Eric Garcetti have a better alternative, and will he try to stop the tunnels project from moving forward?

You couldn't tell from the votes cast by Garcetti's five appointees to the 38-member MWD board. They split 3-2, with the majority opposed.

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Until this week you couldn't tell by listening to Garcetti, either, because he didn't weigh in on the massive project, which would channel Sacramento River water south through 40-mile-long twin tunnels to bypass the fragile delta. And then, maddeningly, on the day of the vote — and not in Los Angeles, but at a press event in Sacramento — he revealed that he did not favor the version that would be voted on minutes later but might support a single tunnel. But why was one tunnel better than two? He didn't explain.

Los Angeles needs stronger leadership from Garcetti on water.

That's a remarkable thing to have to say, because in a real sense Garcetti has made water self-sufficiency the centerpiece of his administration. He has aligned city departments and convened some of the region's best academics, engineers and planners to outline ways to satisfy the city's water needs in an environmentally responsible fashion, with projects to clean and reuse the San Fernando Valley aquifer and to step up treatment and recycling of wastewater. Much as his predecessor, Antonio Villaraigosa, forced L.A. to start kicking its coal-burning habit for electricity generation, Garcetti is trying to reduce L.A.'s dependence on imported water.

But the mayor needs to let the city know how that's going, how long it will realistically take and how much it will cost — and then explain how either the twin tunnel project or a smaller alternative fits into the timeline and onto the bill that will eventually be presented to L.A. ratepayers. And it would be nice if he laid that out for the people of Los Angeles rather than folks in Sacramento. Otherwise, it looks suspiciously like Garcetti is trying align himself with multiple sides to be sure he burns no political bridges in any part of a state where he might soon be running for statewide office.

As mayor, Villaraigosa had ambitions for higher office too (he's currently running for governor), but he rarely allowed them to mute his support or opposition to projects or programs. Like him or not, you knew where he stood. We need some of that timely forthrightness from Garcetti as the tunnels project moves forward — or morphs into a smaller project of the type that Garcetti maybe does, or maybe does not, see as part of L.A.'s future.

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