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Metropolitan Water District votes to buy Delta islands; critics see water grab

A group of public water agencies has asked the state to order farmers in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta to stop irrigating their crops amid the relentless drought.
Photo by Daniel Parks via Flickr Creative Commons
A group of public water agencies has asked the state to order farmers in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta to stop irrigating their crops amid the relentless drought.

The Board of the Metropolitan Water District on Tuesday voted nearly unanimously to pursue the purchase of land in the heart of California's water hub known as the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta.

Totaling more than 20,000 acres, the Delta lands would give Southern California's primary water provider greater ability to move water south to its 19 million customer in six counties.

MWD general manager Jeffery Kightlinger says the deal centers on five islands.

"We’re particularly interested in a number of environmental potential benefits that could come from owning these lands and working on them," he explained.

Those include creating habitats for birds, using the land for carbon sequestration and helping boost the health of local fish.

Buying the parcels would give MWD any senior water rights that come with them. That would give MWD greater latitude to hang onto scarce water supplies in times of drought. It would also make them among the last rights-holders to face curtailment orders. The agency would also be take advantage of the rights given to water-side property owners to use the water that flows by their land.

The purchase also could help with plans to replumb the 1,100-square-mile region of channels, aqueducts and marshland. Gov. Jerry Brown is pursuing a plan to sink two 35-mile long tunnels underneath the Delta to alleviate some of the environmental stress on the region and to make water supplies more reliable for farms and cities to the south. 

Two of the five parcels MWD seeks to buy lie along the planned route of the tunnels. This has environmentalists worried. Some see this as the first step in realizing this controversial project.

"The construction would kill the region... it would destroy thousands and thousands of acres of habitat," said Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla with the group Restore the Delta.

She feels the purchase is also water grab and likened it to when William Mulholland and others bought water rich land north of LA and sent that water south to the city.

Still, MWD said it has no current plans for the land and the twin tunnels project needs state and federal approval before moving forward.

In the meantime, MWD officials say they would continue with plans developed by the current owner to store winter runoff on two of the islands and use much of  the remaining property for habitat restoration. The parcels are currently owned by Delta Wetlands Properties.

Tuesday's vote was 28 to three, with three representatives from the San Diego County Water Authority balking at the purchase. Among them was Yen Tu who didn't like that much of the discussion of the plan happened in closed session.

"We need to have a very good reason and that discussion should be out in the open and not in any closed session."

She also felt that board members should have been given more time to do their own investigations into the value of the land for sale.

MWD staff will now negotiate a deal with the owners of the land. According to MWD, the total price could be anywhere from $150 million to $240 million. The board would then vote again to move forward with the purchase.

You can see the water district's proposal below: 

Document: Delta purchase proposal