Central Valley Farming District Votes Against Participating in the California WaterFix
This week one of the biggest supporters of California’s water tunnels voted against funding the ambitious California water project (known as “California WaterFix”) proposed Governor Jerry Brown. Westlands Water District voted 7 to 1 against a resolution to help fund the $17 billion set of 40-foot-diameter tunnels underneath the Delta, citing concerns about costs that would be borne by the 600 farming families in the sprawling district.
Westlands, the largest agricultural water supplier in the U.S., is the first major water agency to vote on the project. Proponents envision that the largely urban agencies supplied by the State Water Projects would provide 55% of the tunnels’ cost, whereas the agricultural districts of the federal Central Valley Project (including Westlands) would pay for 45%. Due to the sprawling size of agriculture in Fresno and Kings Counties, Westlands would have shouldered about a quarter of the project’s cost. While Westlands General Manager said he thought Westlands vote may be fatal to the project, the Governor’s office insisted that the vote would not doom the tunnels.
Governor Brown has hoped to improve the State’s water situation for decades. He has long hoped to install a tunnel system in the delta to complete the State Water Project, which is a system of 21 dams and hundreds of miles of canals and tunnels built by his father (former Governor Pat Brown) that provides water to 25 million Californians. In the 1980s, during his second gubernatorial term, Governor Brown attempted to build a canal around the delta; however, that was ultimately voted down. Now, analysis and debate have been underway for 10 years for the California WaterFix.
While Westlands vote was on the project as currently proposed, Westland may be more receptive to plans that spread costs to south-of-the-delta Central Valley Project uses, including the federal wildlife refuges. In a report, Westlands staff said costs on the federal side of the project should be spread all across Central Valley Project users south of the delta which would significantly lower the per unit price of the tunnel water from $990 an acre-foot to $173 an acre-foot. Westlands staff also suggested that if the Board signed on to the project, it should be under the condition that state water quality regulators would not impose any rule that unreasonably reduces the delivery capability of the tunnels. However, environmental groups stated that these two conditions, forcing others to pay and relaxed environmental protections, were a nonstarter. Additionally, the general manager of Westlands was pessimistic that a future proposal could be drafted to satisfy the Board.
Officials argue that without the tunnels, California’s water supply will remain vulnerable to rules for protecting endangered species, as well as earthquakes. However, planers continue to struggle to balance the tenets of water supply and environmental protection. Planners are working to satisfy both environmental and local delta interests, as well as water contractors who would be paying for the tunnels.
With Westlands’ decision being the first of many, other big districts will begin making their decisions in the coming weeks. The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, which serves 19 million Southern Californians, has been the primary cheerleader of the project. With its millions of ratepayers, Metropolitans average monthly bills for its customers would likely only increase $1.90 to $3.10 per month. Metropolitan is expected to vote on the project next month.