Water district vote deals major blow to California’s delta tunnel project

The San Luis Reservoir near Los Banos supplies the Westlands Water District with irrigation deliveries pumped from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

By Bettina Boxall, September 19, 2017

The board of the Westlands Water District on Tuesday dealt a potentially fatal blow to the most ambitious California water project planned in decades.

By a 7-1 vote, the state’s largest irrigation district decided not to join California WaterFix — a $17-billion plan to build two tunnels under the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta that would re-engineer the way Northern California supplies are moved to the rest of the state.

The proposed financing structure of the project “doesn’t work for Westlands Water District,” board member Todd Neves said.

As envisioned by proponents, the largely urban agencies supplied by the State Water Project would pick up 55% of the tunnels’ cost and the largely agricultural districts of the federal Central Valley Project — including Westlands —would pay 45%.

Central Valley Project irrigation districts that joined the project, however, would have to cover the tab for two groups that are first in line for delta deliveries but by law would not have to share in the tunnel costs: wildlife refuges and growers with senior water rights.

Because Tuesday’s vote was on the project as currently proposed, Westlands’ board might be more receptive to plans that spread costs to all south-of-the-delta Central Valley Project users, including the federal wildlife refuges.

But Westlands general manager Tom Birmingham was pessimistic that the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation would come up with a proposal that would satisfy his board.

“I don’t know that there are negotiations that would address the concerns that were raised by the directors,” he said after the vote in the district’s Fresno office.

Westlands was the first district to vote on whether to help pay for the long-planned project, a priority of Gov. Jerry Brown’s administration.

The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California board is scheduled to vote on WaterFix early next month. But Westlands’ move is sure to throw a major wrench in project plans.

“Westlands’ decision to not participate in the California WaterFix will make it very difficult for other agencies” to sign on, Birmingham said.

Crashing fish populations in the delta have triggered increasingly strict environmental limits on pumping out water that fills southbound aqueducts. Project backers hope to ease those rules by building a new diversion point on the Sacramento River in the north delta that would feed twin tunnels connected to the pumps.

The new system would be owned and operated by the state Department of Water Resources. Its proponents have said from the beginning that the agricultural and urban water districts that benefit from WaterFix would pay for it.

That raises the question of which districts benefit, and how much they should pay.

In a report, Westlands staff said costs on the federal side of the project should be spread across all Central Valley Project users south of the delta — an approach that would significantly lower the per unit price of the tunnel water from roughly $990 an acre-foot to $173 an acre-foot.

The staff also suggested that if the board signed on to the project, it should be under the condition that state water quality regulators not impose any rule that “unreasonably reduces the delivery capability” of the tunnels.

“They’ve put two conditions [on the project] that can’t possibly be met,” said Patricia Schifferle of Pacific Advocates, an environmental group.

“They’re saying, we’ll participate if you make others pay and give us a free ride on environmental protections. That is a nonstarter.”

It turned out to be a nonstarter for the Westlands board as well.

“Can we afford it even if everyone participates?” asked Neves, who also questioned whether the tunnels would boost water supplies as much as the staff suggested.

After the vote, board member Sarah Woolf said that if growers could be assured the tunnels would significantly increase irrigation deliveries, the project would have a better chance.

“I think it’s a necessary project, so I hope there is a future,” she said.

In a statement, California Natural Resources Secretary John Laird called the Westlands vote disappointing. But he said it “in no way signals the end of WaterFix.”

And Jeffrey Kightlinger, MWD’s general manager, said: “It was clear that this would be a difficult vote for Westlands. … It’s equally clear that actions must be taken to secure a reliable water supply for the state.”