As the clock winds down on Gov. Jerry Brown’s time in office, pressure appears to be mounting on state agencies to move the California WaterFix project forward.
The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California (MWD) surprised many during a Bay-Delta Special Committee meeting on Feb. 27 when it was disclosed that the agency was examining the opportunity to finance the $11 billion cost of building the first of two tunnels in accordance with the Department of Water Resource’s (DWR) revised construction plan. The plan would require increased financial commitment from the agency but would also cede greater control of water resources to the agency. That has critics concerned.
“There is so much to unpack for the public from what was revealed today at MWD’s Bay-Delta Committee meeting,” Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla, executive director of Restore the Delta, wrote in a press release. “On the surface, it is clear that the California Department of Water Resources is moving forward with a two-tunnels application for the change in the point of diversion to secure a State Water Project right for MWD, who will become the financier and operator of the project. California’s water management is being gamed to give the majority of power over watershed management throughout the state to Metropolitan Water District. The state is abdicating its responsibility to manage water for all people in California as a public trust resource.”
WaterFix has bogged down in recent months, as the reality of the project’s nearly $17 billion price tag rattled the agencies expected to bear the burden of that cost. The financial commitments necessary for the project to advance failed to materialize, and DWR revised WaterFix in early February by adopting a staged approach to the tunnel construction. Within days of that announcement, MWD, believing the twin-tunnel approach provided greater benefits, announced it was looking at the feasibility of increasing its financial commitment to the project to ensure that both tunnels were built simultaneously. MWD’s analysis was expected to take four to six weeks to complete.
MWD has undertaken the analysis of two approaches to WaterFix involving a potential commitment of billions of dollars and given itself only a matter of weeks to complete both initiatives. Comments made by Jeffrey Kightlinger, MWD general manager, during the Feb. 27 committee meeting provide some insight into the reason for urgency.
“The governor came and joined this meeting with the (water) contractors, briefly,” said Kightlinger. “The chairman was there. The governor did say we need to get moving, whether it’s one project or the full project – whether it’s the state’s approach to the full project. (He) gave direction to everybody, really encouraged everyone to explore both on the same track simultaneously and to make a decision in weeks to come.”
“We would have to have a new arrangement with the state that clearly protected our financing interests in that, and that the state would respect that,” Roger Patterson, MWD assistant general manager, said during the meeting. “That would require a separate agreement, we believe, with the state that lays out: here’s Metropolitan’s rights and what they financed, here’s how they get reimbursed, that the state doesn’t have the ability to appropriate that and provide water to other agricultural districts through our capacity without working through us. And that would have to be protected, we believe, through some binding document.”
Patterson reiterated the point when a director asked what safeguards MWD would require before it could consider financing a greater portion of the tunnel’s construction cost.
“... We get to set the terms and conditions,” said Patterson. “The state doesn’t get to come in and say, ‘We decided this is a fairer price, Metropolitan.’ No, it would be our choice – what we would do and when we would do it ... If we were allowing parties to wheel water through our capacity, that we would set the terms and conditions. DWR wouldn’t say, ‘This is what we deem is the appropriate price.’ Obviously, we’d have to make it legally defensible, but it would be our calculation, our decision on when, where and how we would do that. And if the state said, ‘We want to really control that,’ I would come back and say, ‘I don’t think this makes any sense for us at all.’ We would have to, in my mind, at a minimum, have that protection for this to make sense for us to do this.”
For more information, visit Restore the Delta at www.restorethedelta.org, Metropolitan Water District at www.mwdh2o.com, the California Department of Water Resources at www.water.ca.gov and Save the California Delta Alliance at https://nodeltagates.com.