LOS ANGELES (AP) — The powerful Metropolitan Water District voted Tuesday to pay its share of the $16 billion project to build two massive tunnels to pipe water from Northern California to Southern California cities.
The 28-6 vote gives Gov. Jerry Brown's ambitious project an important boost of support — and guarantees more than a quarter of the funding — after an influential agricultural group withdrew its backing last month.
The tunnels, which have been discussed in one form or another for generations, would pipe water around the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta — where Sierra Nevada and other mountain runoff flows toward the sea — to a system of canals that deliver water to farms and residents mostly in the southern half of the state.
The vote came after spirited comment over several hours.
Supporters made up largely of business groups and unions said the project was a modern-day fix to improve reliability of water supplies and also support jobs. Critics, including advocates for the poor and environmental groups, said the cost would be shouldered by ratepayers who couldn't all afford cost increases and projected it would further harm salmon and endangered fish in the delta.
While the vote was a strong nod of support from a water wholesaler that supplies water to 19 million people in Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino, San Diego and Ventura counties, the fate of the 35-mile-long (56-kilometer-long) tunnels remained somewhat uncertain.
The board of the Westlands Water District, the nation's largest supplier of irrigation water to farms, voted three weeks ago to withdraw its participation from the project because it was too pricey and didn't have enough guarantees. Westlands is the largest district among farm groups that were expected to cover about 45 percent of the project's costs.
Metropolitan General Manager Jeff Kightlinger said votes scheduled in the next week by other agencies will help determine how the project proceeds.
Depending on how those votes go, Kightlinger said he plans to discuss with the state and federal governments how to make up the loss of Westlands funding or to downscale the project, possibly to one tunnel.
"It's a very historic vote, but the journey still has a long way to go as we try and get to closure," Kightlinger said.
The vote came less than a week after Brown traveled to Southern California to encourage many of the Metropolitan board members to support the plan known as the California WaterFix.
If built, it would be California's most ambitious water project in 50 years and allow Brown to extend both his own legacy and that of his father, Gov. Pat Brown, who championed the State Water Project in the 1960s.
Three of the five board members from Los Angeles, two of four San Diego County Water Authority representatives and the single member from Santa Monica voted against the measure, saying they couldn't support it in its current form. The other two San Diego representatives abstained.
Los Angeles board member Mark Gold said the measure conflicted with Mayor Eric Garcetti's vision of moving from a 20th century water import model to a more resilient self-sufficient approach that would include water recycling, capturing stormwater to recharge aquifers and increased conservation.
"I still have tremendous concerns about our ratepayers' ability to pay for a two-tunnel ... project with very uncertain cost impacts at the same time as paying for the mayor's environmentally superior local water approach," Gold said.
However, Gold added that he would be eager to discuss a one-tunnel option if it is scaled back.