SoCal Water District to Consider Spending Billions More for Tunnel Project

SoCal Water District to Consider Spending Billions More for Tunnel Project

LOS ANGELES (CNS) - The governing board of the largest wholesaler of water in Southern California is set to decide today if it wants to contribute billions of dollars more to a water-delivery tunnel project over the objections of the Los Angeles City Council.

The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California staff appeared set to support a scaled-down, single-tunnel version of the California Waterfix project, but in a dramatic turn last week, again opened up consideration of paying for nearly the entire unfunded portion of the project's two-tunnel version, which would increase the cost to the MWD from about $5 billion to $11 billion.

The Los Angeles City Council last month officially opposed the Waterfix project if it would result in greater costs or a greater portion of the financial burden for the MWD beyond about 47 percent of the $11 billion, one-tunnel version of the project or 26 percent of the two-tunnel, $17 billion project.

``I would like to emphasize that Angelenos should not be treated like an ATM,'' Councilwoman Nury Martinez said before the vote.

The Waterfix project would 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 funding shortfalls for the two-tunnel project -- which the MWD board had agreed last year to spend $4.3 billion to help finance -- the state Department of Water Resources announced in February that the agency plans to pursue a staged construction approach, building only one tunnel initially at a cost of about $11 billion.

Soon after the state proposed the single-tunnel plan, MWD staff outlined a proposal to pick up the unfunded portion of the two-tunnel plan, which amounts to roughly one-third of the project's total $17 billion cost and would more than double its commitment to $11 billion. Under the plan, the MWD would recover the extra investment by selling tunnel capacity to agricultural irrigation districts when WaterFix is built.

After floating the idea of funding both tunnels, MWD staff later sent a letter to the board that it wanted to pull the idea from consideration because it was having trouble securing commitments from the irrigation districts. That was where it appeared things would stand as the board was set to meet, but in yet another turn of events, MWD announced in a letter last week that it plans to present both the one-tunnel and two-tunnel option to the board at the urging of some board members.

The MWD is a wholesale water supplier which, along with the Los Angeles Aqueduct, accounts for roughly 85 percent of the city's water supplies, with the total amount depending on the year's environmental conditions.

The MWD is funded through property taxes and the price it charges for its water, so a decision by its board to help pay for the tunnels could affect Los Angeles' ratepayers and property owners. MWD General Manager Jeffrey Kightlinger has said funding the tunnels would not result in higher taxes because the project would be funded through the agency's regular rate structure.

The 38-member MWD board represents each of the district's 26 member agencies, including five members appointed by Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti. The City Council has no direct control over the MWD board and can only advise how it votes.

The two-tunnel project would cost L.A.'s ratepayers an average of $1.73 per month in 2017 dollars, according to a 2017 report by Fred Pickel, director of the city's Office of Public Accountability, who acts as a watchdog for the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. But Food and Water Watch, a nonprofit environmental advocacy group, has argued the cost will be higher than Pickel is estimating and could raise household water bills from $7 to $16 per month for more than 40 years.

The tunnels are supported by Gov. Jerry Brown, who has argued they would help the environment by protecting fish and also securing a more reliable delivery system for the water.

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