Local water officials encourage support of tunnels

With the statewide drought as a foundation — and the current storms a punch line to jokes highlighting how dry it still is despite recent rainfall — a trio of local water agencies encouraged Glendale business representatives and residents on Thursday to support a controversial plan to build a new system to deliver water from Northern California to the Southland.

FOR THE RECORD: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated in the last paragraph that the Bay Delta plan would be considered for a vote by early 2015. The plan will be considered by state and federal officials for an administrative decision, not a vote, by early 2015.

The Bay Delta Conservation Plan, which includes a $15 billion proposal to build two 35-mile-long tunnels that would carry water from the delta east of the San Francisco Bay to existing plants that pump water southward to increase supply reliability and efficiency has faced strong opposition from groups in Northern California. The tunnels would be 40-feet in diameter.

However, messages from officials in Southern California supporting the proposal have been sporadic, at best, agency representatives said at the Chamber of Commerce-sponsored event.

“The voices being heard right now are not from this region,” said Councilwoman Laura Friedman, who is also Glendale’s representative on the board of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, a consortium of 26 cities.

“We need to have that consensus and be vocal about it,” she added.

Stakeholders in the North are characterizing the Southland as “endlessly thirsty” and the tunnels as “a giant straw” for the south, Friedman said. While it’s easy to fall into the years-long water wars narrative between the two sides, Friedman, a supporter of the Bay Delta plan, said that should be avoided.

“We’re one state,” she said. “We’re going to succeed and fail together.”

Opponents of the $25 billion Bay Delta plan also say it’s too expensive and point out environmental issues related to importing water. The tunnels are just a portion of the project’s cost. The plan is projected to tack on an extra $5 monthly charge to water bills in about a decade from now if it is approved by the state and the Obama administration.

California is in the midst of one of the worst droughts in history, one that may wreak havoc on Central Valley farms. In January, Gov. Jerry Brown declared a drought emergency. The storms passing through are nice, but not lifesavers, said Rich Atwater, executive director of the Southern California Water Committee, a nonprofit trying to encourage people to support the tunnel plan.

At the beginning of February, precipitation levels in the Northern California region where the snowpack comes from were tracking below levels reached during the same time period in 1977, which marked the worst drought in California history, according to data from the Metropolitan Water District.

Since then, however, precipitation in that area is moving closer to 1977 levels, which is a good sign, officials said.

“We’re hoping to get back to the worst-year ever,” Jeff Kitghtlinger, Metropolitan’s executive director, said, adding that a tie for worst would be better than setting a new record.

“It’s always funny, as soon as you say drought, it always rains,” he added.

The first storm this week brought in between 1/4 inch and 1.5 inches of rain across coastal and valley areas in the Los Angeles/Oxnard region, with forecasters predicting “quite impressive” rainfall ranging from 1 to 3 inches across the coasts and valley to 3 to 6 inches in the foothills and mountains over the next few days, according to a National Weather Service update.

Steve Zurn, general manager of Glendale Water & Power, encouraged residents to conserve, despite the rainfall, adding that the drought is even drying out some local groundwater wells.

Utility officials are examining new water rates because rate hikes approved in 2012 by the City Council were critically flawed and need to be scrapped. They’re even considering drought-related fees, Zurn said. However, that discussion is far from solidified as it’s unclear if such surcharges would be legal.

The Bay Delta plan is currently in the environmental review and comment phase, and state and federal officials are expected to consider the proposal for an administrative decision by early 2015, Atwater said.


Follow Brittany Levine on Google+ and on Twitter: @brittanylevine.


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