LOS ANGELES — The Westlands Water District board's decision to not contribute funding to California’s proposed $17 billion WaterFix could put the project in jeopardy.

The state’s biggest agricultural water supplier announced Tuesday at its board meeting in Fresno that is not prepared to spend money on Gov. Jerry Brown’s proposed plan to build water tunnels to bypass the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta.

California Secretary for Natural Resources John Laird
“This vote, while disappointing, in no way signals the end of WaterFix,” said California Secretary for Natural Resources John Laird. John Chacon/Department of Water Resources

Westlands is a San Joaquin Valley water supplier that irrigates some of the state’s biggest farms. It was expected to pay roughly one-fifth of the cost for the tunnels. Westlands board members argued during yesterday’s meeting that the district is being asked to carry too much of the load.

Dozens of water agencies that benefit from the State Water Project have been asked to help finance the tunnels. The decision by Westlands has raised concerns that other districts could follow suit, particularly since the decision could result in other participants having to shoulder more of the financial burden.

“Failing to act puts future water supply reliability at risk,” California Secretary for Natural Resources John Laird said in a statement. “This vote, while disappointing, in no way signals the end of WaterFix.”

The WaterFix plan is to build two 30-mile water tunnels under the ecologically sensitive river delta east of San Francisco Bay. Backers say the tunnels would ship water more reliably from northern California to farms and cities in the south. Many opponents, particularly in the Delta region, view it as a Southern California water grab.

“There is one thing on which everyone agrees: our aging water infrastructure needs to be modernized," Laird said.

Assemblyman Mike Gatto, D-Glendale, who sits on the Delta Council, said there are really two schools of thoughts on the board’s action.

One says that the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, which would contribute the most money, might have some doubts about its contribution,if other water districts follow Westlands' lead, Gatto said.

The other is that the board decision might just be “an initial volley, a negotiating tactic, and that the project is still very much alive,” Gatto said.

An anti-Delta California WaterFix tunnels sign in the Delta community of Rio Vista in August 2016.
An anti-tunnel sign in Rio Vista, Calif. Rich Saskal

Like Laird, Gatto said the risk of not doing anything to repair the state’s water infrastructure given earthquake risk is great.

“We desperately need to do something about the levees,” Gatto said.

“If there were an earthquake anywhere near the Delta, many levees would fail – and that would inject saltwater into the entire state water project – that would destroy the economy of California,” he said.

Such a levee collapse would leave much of Southern California without water for years, he said.

“Clearly, we need to do something about the levees – that no one doubts – we do need a better water system,” Gatto said.

The hesitation around the WaterFix project comes from the environmental community, said Gatto, of the project that has been discussed for 20 years – and it could realistically be another decade before construction starts given lawsuits around environmental issues and time to navigate the state environmental laws.

“They have profound concerns,” Gatto said of environmentalists. “And, people are concerned that California can never do anything without major cost overruns.”

He places himself in a third category, asking if the WaterFix is the best solution for moving water scientifically and physically throughout the state.

“You take those things together: the environmental opposition; questions about the science and the method and the economic questions; and I think there is a question mark about future of the project,” Gatto said.

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