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A raid on Delta Islands
San Francisco Chronicle: Read article at SF Chronicle’s website.
March 9, 2016 Updated: March 9, 2016 4:27pm
If it’s not a water grab, it comes close. That’s one way to view a move by Southern California’s largest water district to buy a handful of Sacramento Delta islands that spell the future of state water policy.
Though it’s based hundreds of miles away, the Metropolitan Water District, which serves 19 million customers, is buying 20,000 acres of real estate in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, California’s prime plumbing fixture.
The district won’t specify what comes next, but the possibilities are obvious. Its leaders have talked up environmental enhancements to the land now used by farmers. That would soften complaints that water diversions are damaging the estuary and aid the agency in court disputes over water allotments.
But ownership comes with other opportunities such as improved water rights for the thirsty south. Though Southern California users have learned to conserve and cut water use to a major degree, the islands act essentially like a straw into the state’s central water supply. That access comes with extra value amid a four-year drought that has cut south-bound flows from other sources.
Acquiring the islands provides another advantage. Two of the islands sit directly across the planned path of Gov. Jerry Brown’s twin tunnel project that would divert Sacramento River water, run it under the delta and ship it south. By owning part of the route, the Met makes it easier to build the governor’s $15.5 billion project and clears away the need for eminent domain legal proceedings.
The Met, regarded as one of the biggest players in the state’s water world, is living up to its image. It represents more than 20 water districts from Los Angeles to San Diego, which subsist on water drawn from outside the arid region. In this case, it’s important to note that the island purchase wasn’t close to unanimous with representatives from Los Angeles, Santa Monica and San Diego not backing the deal. Not all of Southern California is convinced that a raid on north state water is a bright idea.
Months ago, the water agency signaled it was interested in the islands, owned by a Swiss insurance firm that wanted to turn the diked areas into reservoirs offering water for sale. The Met is unlikely to do the same, given its own need for secure supplies.
But that constant search for water comes at an enormous cost to the rest of the state, especially the over-subscribed delta. The agency is buying its way, not negotiating. It would rather pay to flatten obstacles for the enormous twin tunnel solution than work out a settlement. Local farmers, cities and environmentalists are left on the sidelines.
The vote of the water agency’s board is drawing an expected and rightful response from delta communities and environmental groups concerned about the future of the estuary and the heavy-gauge power play now on display.
Having the heavy-handed Met as a new neighbor is an “existential threat,’’ according to Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla, executive director of Restore the Delta, a conservation group. She’s right to be concerned, and the rest of California should be too.