Key farm district considers backing California water project

FRESNO, Calif. (AP) — Farmers in the nation's largest irrigation district on Tuesday will consider whether to sign on to Gov. Jerry Brown's $16 billion plans to build two giant tunnels to re-engineer California's north-south water delivery system.

The biggest water project proposed for California in more than a half-century has no firm financial commitments from local water districts so far, with some fearing it would drive up the cost of water delivered to farms and residents.

It comes a day after The Associated Press reported newly revealed state plans to put dozens more water agencies and millions of families and farmers on the hook for funding the tunnels.

The Westlands Water District is a key player in the project's success or failure, already having invested millions toward planning, but it's not yet committed to shouldering a share of the hefty construction costs.

The district is meeting in Fresno for a possible early vote on whether to support the twin tunnels. The powerful agency provides irrigation water to 1,000 square miles (2,590 square kilometers) in the San Joaquin Valley, some of the nation's richest farmland.

It's unclear whether its board of directors will signal its support or postpone a vote, deterred by the high cost and other uncertainties plaguing a project that has been on the drawing board for more than a decade.

Brown is pressing to secure the project before he leaves office next year.

It calls for building two 35-mile-long (56-kilometer-long) tunnels east of San Francisco to deliver water from the Sacramento River mostly to farms and cities hundreds of miles away in central and Southern California.

Backers say the tunnels will stabilize flows, bolstering endangered fish and ensuring a reliable water supply. Critics say the project will be used to drain Northern California dry and further harm native fish.

Water districts for the Silicon Valley and those in the farm-rich Central Valley and Southern California are due to vote in the coming weeks.

Westlands and districts throughout California supply farms and communities with river water that flows through a complex system of reservoirs and canals operated by state and federal officials.

With no major financial commitments so far for the tunnels, the state now contends that dozens of local water agencies would be obligated to foot the bill under existing contracts. That would drive up rates for customers, unless the agencies could find another water contractor to buy out their share of the project's cost.

The approach pivots from longstanding state and federal assurances that only water districts that seek to participate would pay.

Administrators at Westlands, which supplies water to hundreds of family farms and some large corporate farms, recommend that its farmers support the tunnels only if the costs are spread out to other agencies in proportion to how much water they get from the state, making it more affordable for the agricultural district.

A second condition is that state water officials not impose "unreasonable" restrictions on how much water Westlands can take from the Sacramento River.

(Copyright 2017 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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