The board of Southern California's water importer voted Tuesday to buy 20,000 acres of farm islands in the heart of the state's north-south plumbing system.
The land is owned by a private company that for years has tried to develop a water storage project on the property. But the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California says it has other plans for the four islands in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, which is east of San Francisco.
District officials said the acreage could be converted to fish and wildlife habitat or used to store materials for emergency levee repairs or to provide access for the construction of a delta tunnel system.
"We hope to execute a purchase agreement shortly," said Jeffrey Kightlinger, Metropolitan's general manager. He did not disclose the price but indicated it was in the range of $200 million.
The board voted last fall to negotiate an option to purchase Bacon and Bouldin islands, Webb and Holland tracts and a portion of Chipps Island from Delta Wetlands Properties, which is owned by a subsidiary of a Swiss insurance company, Zurich Insurance Group.
But the staff concluded the option process involved too many complications and instead asked the board to authorize a direct purchase. The board approved the buy on a 54%-41% vote, with representatives of Los Angeles, Santa Monica and the San Diego County Water Authority voting no.
To close the deal, which will have a 60-day escrow, Kightlinger said, Delta Wetlands Properties has to clear from the title various agreements it made in connection with the water storage proposal.
Landowners on neighboring islands objected to the reservoir project, saying it could weaken their levees and endanger farming operations. To settle the challenges, the company agreed to various safeguards that MWD says are no longer necessary, given the district's plans.
The $15-billion tunnel system, backed by Metropolitan and big irrigation districts in the San Joaquin Valley, would carry Sacramento River water under the delta to the pumping operations that send supplies south.
Two of the islands are in the path of the tunnels, so MWD ownership would eliminate the need for eminent domain proceedings and provide easy access for construction crews on part of the project route.
Although the islands have water rights, Kightlinger has said they are not significant.
The tunnels are fiercely opposed by delta farmers. In a statement, the anti-tunnel group Restore the Delta called MWD ownership of a chunk of the delta "an existential threat."