SACRAMENTO, Calif. – The leading water agency in Southern California has hit a snag that could potentially derail its controversial plan to acquire a group of Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta islands.
For months now, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California (also known as Metropolitan, Met or MWD), has been negotiating a deal with three Kern County agricultural water agencies that would allow Metropolitan to purchase four islands spanning more than 20,000 acres of land currently used for farming.
The plan has raised many questions as to the real reason behind Metropolitan’s interest in the islands – which many believe is an attempt to extract more water from Northern California. Metropolitan serves 19 million people in Southern California.
“Originally they were going to flood three islands and use one for habitat restoration, but then the project changed and they decided they would use two islands as part-time reservoirs and the other two would be habitat,” George Hartmann of The Hartmann Law Firm in Stockton said.
The purchase of the islands has proven to be challenging not only because of the large number of people reportedly opposing the plan, but because of some legal restrictions regulating the treatment of the islands. The restrictions have been in place since 2013, when a settlement agreement between the islands’ owner, Delta Wetlands Properties, and San Joaquin County officials, neighboring water agencies and other government parties was drafted. Delta Wetlands Properties is controlled by a Swiss insurance company, Zurich Insurance Group.
“I was one of the lawyers who helped draft [the agreement], so I know what’s in them. It would restrict them from using the land as spoil sites. I know they’re not happy about that and I don’t think they like some of the other provisions that would apply to them. So they’re looking for ways around it,” Hartmann, who represents the farmers and reclamation district, said.
Metropolitan General Manager Jeff Kightlinger told The Sacramento Bee that the restrictions are making the deal more complicated than initially thought, and that the Metropolitan wants to purchase the island “free and clear” of heavy restrictions.
“There are a lot of parties on our side to that agreement. I can only speak for one party, but I think the consensus is the same for everyone else, and that is that we would not agree to any modification. But they haven’t really approached anyone on our side seeking modification,” Hartmann said.
Metropolitan’s plan to control the islands is preceded by a long-established state plan to construct two tunnels underneath the Delta to circulate water between Northern and Southern California. But the proposed tunnel system that Metropolitan supports has faced constant resistance.
“I believe [buying the islands] makes it much easier for Met and the state to build the tunnels. They basically want those islands to make their acquisition of land for the tunnels easier, and to create spoil sites for spoils from the tunnels project,” Hartmann said.
Two of the islands are in the path of the proposed tunnel system. Metropolitan gaining control over the islands could advance the tunnels project and eliminate the need for lengthy domain proceedings with landowners in the Delta.
Hartmann said what has destroyed the ecosystems in the Delta is water exports to Southern California – taking fresh water out of the Delta that should have been used to flush the Delta, and as a result, the ecosystem is degraded.
“So the real solution is to run more water through the Delta, not less. And the tunnels would flow less water,” Hartmann said.
“The other thing that’s really bad is that the original Bay Delta Conservation program contemplated that the restoration of the Delta ecosystem would be part and parcel of building the tunnels or Peripheral Canal – it would all be interlinked. Now Gov. (Jerry) Brown has separated them into a water-fix and an eco-fix, and because the eco-fix is independent, they may get to it or they may not,” Hartmann said.
The tunnels plan, or California WaterFix, is estimated to cost approximately $15 billion. Those in favor of the plan assert that the tunnels will improve water flow to regions south of the Delta and protect the habitat.
“Met is a natural enemy of the Delta. They don’t care about the habitat; they care about getting as much water as they can,” Hartmann said.
Metropolitan is negotiating the deal with Semitropic, Rosedale-Rio Bravo and Wheeler Ridge-Maricopa in Kern County. The islands Metropolitan has its eye on are Bouldin Island, Bacon Island, Webb Tract, Holland Island and a portion of Chipps Island.
“California water politics is generally crooked. It’s a highly politically controlled situation and big money plays a big part,” Hartmann said.