Tens of thousands of votes were cast in Long Beach this week in races that decided city council members and the mayor, but perhaps one of the most consequential votes cast Tuesday took place in Los Angeles when the Metropolitan Water District (MWD) of Southern California board voted to approve billions of dollars in funding for a twin water tunnel project.
The MWD voted to approve nearly $11 billion in funding for a project involving two delta tunnels dubbed Waterfix. The Waterfix project will help transfer water from the Sacramento River through 35 miles of tunnels into existing pumping stations that will then deliver the water to Southern California.
The Long Beach Water Department (LBWD), which is one of 26 member agencies that make up the MWD, buys about 40 percent of water that the city’s residents use from the MWD. Long Beach Water Commissioner Gloria Cordero joined the majority in voting for the project.
“For decades, we have sought a solution to the problems of the Bay Delta, problems that put Southern California’s water supply at risk,” Metropolitan board Chairman Randy Record said in a statement. “We finally have that solution, California WaterFix. We simply could not jeopardize the opportunity to move this long-sought and much-needed project forward.”
By approving the plan, and more than doubling the $4.3 billion originally pledged to the project last year, it’s projected that customers of the MWD are expected to see their bills rise by an average of $4.80 per month.
Combined with the prospect of a charter reform ballot initiative in Long Beach on the June ballot this year, one that could undo a settlement between the city and a resident who sued over the practice of the water department being charged access fees by the city which resulted in a reduction of about $3-per-monthly bill, residents could see a cumulative impact to their bills, though water department officials do not know the full increase amount at this time.
LBWD officials said the city does not rely as heavily on imported water as other agencies—it receives about 30 to 40 percent from MWD depending on demand—so costs to customers are likely to be less than the average impact that was quoted by MWD. LBWD is currently updating its analysis on specific impacts to customers, according to spokeswoman Kaylee Weatherly.
The MWD stated that the average monthly charge could fluctuate as it seeks to recoup some of its investments from a portion of the agriculture sector that had refused to become a financial partner in the project but stands to gain from imported water from the north. Opponents of the project focused on this, casting it as a handout to corporate farmers who will benefit at the cost of residential ratepayers.
Waterfix is the MWD’s attempt to update an aging water delivery system that is responsible for delivering about one-third of Southern California’s tap water. It will use gravity to draw water from just south of the state capital to the Clifton Court Forebay northwest of Tracy where they’ll link up with aqueducts and existing water infrastructure that delivers water to the south.
In a letter to the board, California Gov. Jerry Brown advocated for the MWD’s approval, calling it a historic decision that has the potential to help offset future prolonged droughts, something he said is becoming clear as the new normal for the state.
“This is a historic decision that is good for California—our people, our farms and our natural environment,” Brown said in a statement released after the board voted to fund the full project.
Some debate had taken place over whether the project would be undertaken in phases or if it would include one or two tunnels. The MWD estimated that the cost of building just one tunnel in a staged approach would run about $11.1 billion, a figure that could rise as the costs and timelines could fluctuate over time. Funding the full project with two tunnels was approved by the board’s vote at a cost of $10.8 billion in today’s dollars.
It’s expected that the project would take about 13 years to complete once design, land acquisitions and other prep work takes place—a process estimated to take about four years— meaning that the project likely won’t be finished until around 2035.
[Editor’s note: A previous version of this article stated that a ballot measure would be on the November ballot, it will be on the June ballot. The story has been updated to reflect that.]