PHOENIX - The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California agreed to purchase islands in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta for $175 million, a controversial decision that some opponents view as part of a water grab.

The purchase and sale agreement between Metropolitan and Delta Wetlands Properties was executed on Friday, a spokesman from the district confirmed. The money, paid from district revenues, will secure ownership of some islands about 60 miles east of San Francisco from a Swiss insurance company. The district has said that its board decided to buy the delta islands independent of Gov. Jerry Brown’s $15 billion water plan to construct two tunnels through the delta to divert water to the south, though the district’s ownership of the islands could facilitate that effort.

Brown’s plan has drawn fire from some Northern California landowners and environmental groups who have long been concerned about the ramifications of diverting large quantities of water to Southern California.  A ballot measure backed by wealthy Stockton farmer Dean Cortopassi would require a referendum whenever the state wants to use revenue bonds to borrow more than $2 billion for infrastructure projects, potentially blocking Brown’s plan, which involves issuing revenue bonds that would be repaid by water districts. Cortopassi has spent millions of his own money in support of the ballot measure.

The federal government is now investigating some funds used to lay groundwork for the plan following a complaint from a national nonprofit group called Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility. The group charged in a Feb. 19 letter to the U.S. Department of the Interior that California has received some $60 million under the federal Fish and Wildlife Coordination Act and improperly used it on water project matters unrelated to environmental preservation. It also alleged double billing for work done under a previous federal grant, and that the state improperly collected all its federal money at once, in violation of a matching funds provision.

“California is improperly diverting federal grants to a giant slush fund for the California Water Fix,” PEER senior counsel Paula Dinerstein said in a statement, using the nickname for Brown’s delta tunnel proposition. In a letter dated April 8, Mary Kendall, Deputy Inspector General for the U.S. Department of Interior wrote PEER saying that the IG would investigate the allegations.

“We have carefully reviewed the information you provided to us and gathered additional information about the agreement,” Kendall wrote. “Based on this information we have decided to conduct a review into the issues raised in your letter and we expect to commence our work on this matter this month.”

The Metropolitan Water District has said it plans to do work improving the environment as part of its ownership with the islands.

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