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