Tunnels under construction
A rendering of the two tunnels under construction. Courtesy California WaterFix

The governing board of California’s largest water wholesaler voted Tuesday to spend billions more on Gov. Jerry Brown’s massive tunnel project, despite concerns it will raise residents’ water rates.

The California WaterFix project is designed to divert water from the Sacramento River as it enters the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and carry it to existing federal and state pumping stations in the southern part of the delta through one or two 35-mile tunnels.

In the face of statewide funding shortfalls for the $17 billion, two-tunnel project, the state Department of Water Resources announced in February that the agency planned to pursue a staged construction approach, building only one tunnel initially at a cost of about $11 billion.

The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California board voted last year to contribute $4.3 billion toward the WaterFix project. But on Tuesday, the board voted to increase its investment to $10.8 billion, providing the remaining funding needed to build the full two-tunnel project.

“For decades, we have sought a solution to the problems of the Bay Delta, problems that put Southern California’s water supply at risk,” MWD board Chairman Randy Record said. “We finally have that solution, California WaterFix. We simply could not jeopardize the opportunity to move this long-sought and much-needed project forward.”

MWD officials said the agency’s increased investment in the project is expected to cost the average Southern California household up to $4.80 per month in increased water bills. Critics of the project have estimated a much higher impact, suggesting monthly bills for Los Angeles residents could jump by as much as $16 per month.

The decision will impact rates in San Diego because the San Diego County Water Authority received 40 percent of its water from the MWD in 2017, though the percentage is forecast to fall significantly as new, local supplies come on line.

The governor hailed the MWD board’s decision. Brown has long supported the project, saying it will help the environment by protecting fish and also securing a more reliable delivery system for the water.

“This is a historic decision that is good for California — our people, our farms and our natural environment,” Brown said.

Although the MWD staff initially supported the scaled-down, single-tunnel version of the WaterFix project, the agency last week began reconsidering the idea of funding the entire unfunded portion of the full two- tunnel version.

Five members of the MWD board appointed by Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti pushed for a delay in Tuesday’s vote. But the board voted 27-10 to fund the two-tunnel project, with all five Los Angeles representatives among the opposition.

Members representing some other areas of the MWD — which includes water agencies in Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino, San Diego and Ventura counties — argued that their regions do not have as much potential access to local water supplies as Los Angeles does, and are in greater need of a consistent supply from the MWD.

— From Staff and Wire Reports

Chris Jennewein

Chris Jennewein is Editor & Publisher of Times of San Diego.