New agency builds momentum for California water tunnels

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A joint powers authority has been formed to oversee design and construction of California’s delta water tunnel project, a milestone in the multibillion-dollar plan that has been in the works for more than a decade.

The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, Santa Clara Valley Water District and Zone 7 Water Agency, three agencies that agreed to fund the project, have seats on the board of the newly formed Delta Conveyance Design and Construction Joint Powers Authority. A board slot is reserved for the Kern County Water Agency, whose board will vote May 24 on whether to accept the seat.

“Our mission to modernize California’s primary water delivery system took another incredibly important step forward,” said Jennifer Pierre, general manager of the State Water Contractors, a nonprofit mutual benefit corporation representing 27 water agencies that purchase water under contract from the California State Water Project.

The new agency will hold its first meeting Thursday.

The MWD board, the largest supplier of water to southern California, voted last month to contribute $10.8 billion to the $16.3 billion price tag of the WaterFix project, which would build tunnels to move fresh water around the San Joaquin-Sacramento River Delta; the goal is to prevent salt water from entering the state system that moves water from the rainier northern regions to its agricultural and urban users to the south.

The California Department of Water Resources also has created the Delta Conveyance Office, which will oversee the work of the joint powers authority. During the Thursday meeting, the JPA’s Board of Directors will consider entering into a management partnership with the DWR.

As the water agencies ratepayers will pay for design and construction of the project, “it was important to make sure they had a significant role,” Pierre said.

Supporters hope the project will make its way through the State Water Resources Control Board permitting process this year, a necessary step before construction could begin. It will take 15 to 17 years to complete the project.

Plans are to form a second finance joint powers authority later this year that would be responsible for issuing bonds for the project, Pierre said.

“The formation of the DCA represents a milestone in years of collaboration, and begins the process of ensuring that Santa Clara County will be able to get a clean and safe water supply while protecting the environment,” said Tony Estremera, director of the Santa Clara Valley Water District.

Gov. Jerry Brown has been a strong supporter of the project and there has been concern that the project could lose momentum when he terms out after the November election.

The project is unpopular around the delta itself and its fate was in question after one water agency declined to invest and another balked at the price.

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Water bonds Infrastructure California Department of Water Resources The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California California