Kern County farm­ers says they’re will­ing to pay for the Delta tun­nels

Lodi News-Sentinel - - State - By Dale Kasler

BAK­ERS­FIELD — A bloc of San Joaquin farm­ers ten­ta­tively en­dorsed the Delta tun­nels project Thurs­day, be­com­ing the first sig­nif­i­cant agri­cul­tural group to sup­port the strug­gling plan.

But the level of sup­port from mem­bers of the Kern County Water Agency, which serves much of the $7 bil­lion-a-year farm econ­omy at the south­ern end of the val­ley, was less than whole­hearted. An es­ti­mated 48.5 per­cent of the agency’s water users said they’re in­ter­ested in help­ing pay for the tun­nels, which works out to about $1 bil­lion in fi­nan­cial sup­port.

That leaves the tun­nels project, known of­fi­cially as Cal­i­for­nia WaterFix, still bil­lions of dol­lars short of the fund­ing it would need to bring to com­ple­tion Gov. Jerry Brown’s plan to re-en­gi­neer the Sacra­mento-San Joaquin Delta and im­prove water de­liv­er­ies to south state water agen­cies.

The Delta Coun­ties Coali­tion, an al­liance of the coun­ties of Con­tra Costa, Sacra­mento, San Joaquin, Solano and Yolo ad­vo­cat­ing for pro­tect­ing the in­ter­ests of the Delta and Cal­i­for­nia’s water sup­ply, was crit­i­cal of Thurs­day’s vote.

“It’s in­con­ceiv­able-how any­one can sup­port such a mas­sive project for which costs are still not clearly cal­cu­lated, and construction and op­er­a­tion plans are yet to be drafted,” San Joaquin County Su­per­vi­sor Chuck Winn said. “Even worse, this poorly planned project will not add any more water for our state’s res­i­dents, busi­nesses, farm­ers or en­vi­ron­ment. The DCC has con­sis­tently ad­vo­cated vi­able al­ter­na­tives that cost less, im­prove the Delta and pro­vide more water for all Cal­i­for­ni­ans.”

Brown and other state of­fi­cials have be­gun talk­ing about scal­ing the project down — per­haps build­ing one tun­nel in­stead of two — to make up for the ex­pected short­fall in fund­ing.

Nonethe­less, Kern water agency gen­eral man­ager Curtis Creel said the level of par­tic­i­pa­tion could grow, and he said he con­sid­ers the 48.5 per­cent fig­ure a strong vote of con­fi­dence in the tun­nels project as cur­rently pro­posed.

“Has any other agri­cul­tur­ally based con­trac­tor come out with as large a num­ber?” Creel said. “That’s a huge, huge num­ber.”

Ted Page, a farmer from the But­ton­wil­low area and pres­i­dent of the Kern agency board, said, “It’s kind of like that wild­fire up there. It can grow pretty fast.”

By con­trast, the sin­gle largest agri­cul­tural con­trac­tor in the state, West­lands Water District, voted last month to re­ject any par­tic­i­pa­tion in the $17.1 bil­lion tun­nels project. West­lands had been counted on to con­trib­ute at least $3 bil­lion to WaterFix.

Of­fi­cials with the giant Metropoli­tan Water District of Cal­i­for­nia, which com­mit­ted more than $4 bil­lion to the project ear­lier this week, said they were pleased with the sup­port from the Kern County farm­ers.

“It’s a work in progress, but I’d take it as a step in the right di­rec­tion,” said Roger Pat­ter­son, Metropoli­tan’s deputy gen­eral man­ager, who at­tended the Kern agency’s board meet­ing. The seven-mem­ber Kern board voted unan­i­mously to no­tify the Cal­i­for­nia Depart­ment of Water Re­sources of the level of in­ter­est in the project.

The Kern vote likely sets in mo­tion sev­eral months of ne­go­ti­a­tions among var­i­ous con­trac­tors that be­long to the State Water Project. The state has said ev­ery south-of-Delta state con­trac­tor must con­trib­ute to the project or find an­other agency to take their share.

The State Water Project op­er­ates along­side the fed­eral govern­ment’s Cen­tral Val­ley Project. Both projects pump bil­lions of gal­lons of North­ern Cal­i­for­nia water out of the Delta to the San Joaquin Val­ley, South­ern Cal­i­for­nia and parts of the Bay Area.

“Kern County will re­gret this de­ci­sion when its ratepay­ers get stuck with much higher water bills than orig­i­nally promised with­out the water se­cu­rity they were guar­an­teed for this mas­sive in­vest­ment,” said Con­tra Costa County Su­per­vi­sor Karen Mitchoff. “Cal­i­for­ni­ans de­serve bet­ter than this dis­as­trous, fa­tally flawed project. They de­serve com­mon sense, af­ford­able so­lu­tions that ad­dress the state’s water sup­ply short­age and won’t pit one part of the state against an­other, “The ‘ev­ery­one for them­selves’ vote cast to­day does a dis­ser­vice to ev­ery res­i­dent or busi­ness who re­lies on water in this state.”

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