Local agencies react to state water plan

After decades of deadlock, local water officials are hopeful that a new plan to secure a water supply from the Sierra Nevada snowpack will overcome political hurdles and send water flowing steadily to Southern California.

On July 25, Gov. Jerry Brown announced a $23-billion plan to dig two tunnels underneath the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and divert flows of fresh water to the State Water Project, which serves cities and farms from the San Francisco Bay to Southern California.

Water officials from Glendale, Burbank, Pasadena and La Cañada Flintridge hailed the plan.

“It's a major step forward,” said Phyllis Currie, general manager of Pasadena Water and Power. “We've been talking about a fix for the delta for quite a long time.”

The transfer of water from north to south has been one of the enduring controversies in California politics, with Northern California voters and environmental groups opposing such efforts while Southern California farmers and cities advocate for them. In 1982, voters rejected so the so-called peripheral canal that would have diverted water around the delta, and no plan has come close to fruition in the 30 years since.

Local water officials emphasized that this proposal would not increase the amount of water Southern California is contracted to receive, but would simply make the supply more reliable. They say the earthen levees in the delta present risks, and that climate change could jeopardize the delta's fresh-water supply.

“We're so vulnerable now with an earthquake, or sea-level rises in the Delta, which would cause the water to get saltier and saltier,” said Foothill Municipal Water District board chairman Richard Atwater, whose agency serves La Cañada. “I've been working in water in Southern California for 30 years and this is the best solution I've ever seen.”

Burbank's Assistant Water Manager, Bill Mace, said that in winter, some fresh water flows directly to the ocean because of pumping restrictions related to environmental concerns such as the delta smelt, a federally-protected species of fish vulnerable to State Water Project pumps.

With pipelines that would divert fresh water before it reaches the delta, Mace said, it would be possible to protect habitat and increase the reliability of Southern California's water supply. Still, the old fights promise to resurface as leaders examine the costs that will be borne by users and detail the strategies for protecting the delta.

Brown's proposal estimates the cost of construction at $14 billion, with $5 billion needed to operate the system and another $3 billion to $4 billion to pay for restoring delta habitat. End users such as Central Valley farmers and Southern California homeowners would be asked to pay for construction and service, while a bond or other tax would cover habitat restoration.

The details of the financing are undergoing further study. It is considered unlikely that the project would be approved and break ground before 2016. It is expected it would take a decade to build.

Mace noted that the number of cities relying on the State Water Project has grown since the peripheral canal plan pitted north versus south, and thinks Northern California voters may look more favorably on this plan.

Mace acknowledged that end users will see a rate increase to pay for the project, but says it is worth it.

“I'm not in favor of higher water rates,” he said. “But I am in favor of having reliable, predictable water supplies.”

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