California Farmers Reject Governor’s Water Tunnels
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California Governor Jerry Brown’s WaterFix plan to revamp the state’s water system suffered a major setback after key irrigation suppliers backed out of the plan. The Associated Press reports that Westland Water District’s board voted 7-1 against supporting the governor’s WaterFix program. Westland is the nation’s largest irrigation water supplier, and its withdrawal might signal the collapse of WaterFix.
Despite the challenge, John Laird, secretary of the California Natural Resources Agency, believes that the program will eventually succeed. Citing the state’s decades-old water infrastructure as a liability that “puts future water supply reliability at risk,” Laird was adamant that WaterFix will not go away.
The Hanford Sentinel reports that Westland Water District’s general manager did not share Laird’s optimism. Thomas Birmingham said, “This thing dies, the project will be over.” The plan was to spend $16 billion on tunnels designed to deliver water from Northern California to Southern. While Westlands is not the only supplier that will vote, other districts might take the giant’s decision as a cue to follow.
The plan was expected to drive up water costs for farmers and residents, despite the government’s previous assurances that only those districts that choose to support the program would see any cost shift.
The Sentinel also notes that Brown wants to “secure the project before he leaves office next year.” While supporters of the tunnels say there will be ecological and economical benefits, opponents think Southern California would be getting a better deal at the expense of Northern California’s water supply.
The Sacramento Bee reports that over $200 million has already been spent on planning, but no districts have committed to the massive construction costs yet. Ideally, the tunnels would simplify the aging, complex system that currently delivers water.
William Bourdeau, a Westlands board member, was skeptical of the potential benefits. “We would be obligating hundreds of family farms [to pay],” he said, continuing with “That doesn’t make economic sense.” Bourdeau thinks the federal government should bear some of the cost for the new project as it did during the construction of the current system. The vote was almost delayed for the possibility of such a deal change, but Birmingham denied this was likely.
Delta farmers, who have staunchly opposed the tunnels, cheered Westlands’ vote. They consider the tunnels a waste of money that could be better spent on collecting storm runoff and fixing leaky infrastructure. These changes, they say, would reduce the demand for water from the delta.
The LA Times reports that the Metropolitan Water District (MWD) of Southern California’s board is set to vote in early October on committing $4.3 billion to the project. As a large district with water storage capacities, MWD is one of the districts that stands to benefit the most from the plan.
The MWD’s support is key to the project’s future, but it remains to be seen how smaller districts will vote. Furthermore, any change in costs for the average citizen are a factor in many board members’ minds. The Los Angeles Office of Public Accountability projects that “WaterFix could add anywhere from $10.44 to $51.72 a year to the water bills of the city’s median single family residence.”