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Westlands Water District: California WaterFix Is ‘Not Financially Viable’

In a major victory for Delta Tunnels opponents, the Board of Directors of the Westlands Water District on September 19 voted 7 to 1 against their participation in Governor Jerry Brown’s California WaterFix project.

Growers in the massive district, located on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley, cited the high cost of the state-federal proposal as their reason for rejecting the project. Politically powerful Westlands is the largest irrigation district in the country.

The district would be one of the key beneficiaries of the proposed 35-mile long twin tunnels under the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta — and their rejection of the project is a major loss for the Brown administration’s campaign to fast-track the construction of the tunnels. It also sends a message to other water districts that the cost of the controversial plan is not worth the potential benefits.

The Metropolitan Water District (MWD) of Southern California board is slated to vote on the tunnels in early October, but the Westlands vote delivers a major blow to the project.

“Westlands’ decision to not participate in the California WaterFix will make it very difficult for other agencies to participate,” Tom Birmingham, the General Manager of Westlands, told the Los Angeles Times.

In a statement issued the day after the meeting, the district said they rejected the California WaterFix because the project is “not financially viable” from their perspective:

“The District appreciates the efforts of Governor Jerry Brown and his administration to balance the interests of many. Indeed, over the last twelve months the State administration worked diligently to define a viable project, but from Westlands’ perspective, the project is not financially viable.”

Westlands’ principal source of water is the Central Valley Project, a project operated by the United States Bureau of Reclamation. The CVP is integrated both operationally and financially. However, under the ‘participation approach’announced by Reclamation for CWF, only CVP contractors that chose to participate in CWF would pay the costs of constructing and operating new facilities, with no assurance that those contractors would receive the water supply benefits resulting from CWF.

Westlands supported the development of CWF and has invested considerable financial resources, time, and expertise into its planning, but consistently stated that it would not obligate the farmers it serves to billions of dollars in debt without reasonable assurances that the project would produce reliable, affordable water supplies. The District recognizes that solving Delta conveyance issues is critical to ensuring reliable water supplies to support the economy of the State, but it cannot support a project that would make water supplies for its farmers unaffordable.”

Delta Tunnels opponents are very pleased with the Westlands decision.

“Today is a very good day for California,” said Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla, Executive Director of Restore the Delta, in a statement. “By rejecting California WaterFix, the Westlands Water District has dealt a blow to the project. There are many better solutions for creating a sustainable water supply in California.”

She noted that Metropolitan Water District’s math used to justify the construction of the project is based on a “sizable contribution from Westlands,” as is the Santa Clara Valley Water District’s math.

“They now have to come up with a lot more money for the Delta Tunnels,” Barrigan-Parrilla stated. “It won’t pencil out for them either.”

The Brown administration tried to downplay the significance of the Westlands decision.

“There is one thing on which everyone agrees: Our aging infrastructure needs to be modernized,” said California Natural Resources Secretary John Laird in a statement. “Failing to act puts future water supply reliability at risk. This vote, while disappointing, in no way signals the end of WaterFix.”

The Westlands vote against the tunnels is not the only victory in the campaign to stop the project on the same day. The Los Angeles City Council Energy and Environmental Committee also voted no for the Delta Tunnels project — “until the project is fully financed and Metropolitan Water District meets all their considerations,” according to RTD.

On September 18, over 40 ratepayers drew significant media attention by holding a No Tunnels, No Water Rate Hike rally in front of Los Angeles City Hall.

Rally and meeting participants included representatives of Food & Water Watch, Consumer Watchdog, Union de Vecinos, Restore the Delta, Los Angeles Waterkeeper, Concerned Citizens of Compton, Southern California Watershed Alliance, Sierra Club Angeles Water Committee, March and Rally-LA, People Organized for Westside Renewal (POWER), and Ground Game LA, neighborhood council leaders and faith leaders.

“The Delta Tunnels would raise water rates and property taxes in Los Angeles, costing ratepayers a total of $2.5 to $4 billion,” said Brenna Norton of Food and Water Watch. “These massive tunnels would change the way water is diverted from the Bay Delta and would send additional water to corporate agribusinesses in the Central Valley, while Southern California ratepayers pay more for no additional water.”

Norton said the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power has endorsed this rate hike, which would be imposed by the Metropolitan Water District, even though it plans to reduce water imports from the Delta.

Also on Tuesday, the Santa Clara Valley Water District in San Jose voted to pass a “no regrets package” planning $100 million for 9 different projects like stormwater capture, leak repair and gray water, RTD stated.

Delta Tunnels opponents are urging people to show up for their public meeting on September 26th to tell them to vote no on the project.

On Monday, the Associated Press revealed that “dozens of water agencies and millions of families and farmers would be on the hook” for building the Delta Tunnels. AP obtained new documents from Westlands — and confirmed the expanded funding demands in phone and email interviews with state and local water officials.

Also on Monday, the California Indian Water Commission joined three environmental groups — the California Water Impact Network, AquAlliance and California Sportfishing Protection Alliance — in filing a legal challenge to the financing of the Delta Tunnels.

A recent landmark 9th Circuit ruling that federally reserved Indian water rights have precedence over all state and federal water rights puts a new twist on how much water there really will be available for the tunnels or any other project — and could put a big wrench in state and federal plans to build the massive 35 mile long tunnels under the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta.

“The California Indian Water Commission’s involvement in this filing is about upholding traditional indigenous responsibilities to the lands and waters of California,” said Don Hankins, President of the federally recognized CIWC. “With this filing, we affirm our commitment to future generations through protection of the lands and waters of this state, and the associated organisms, which we also maintain obligations to.”

Dan Bacher is an environmental journalist in Sacramento. He can be reached at: Dan Bacher danielbacher@fishsniffer.com.

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