SAN JOSE, Calif. (AP) — A Northern California water agency heard hours of public comment Wednesday on whether to give its full support to the governor's plan to build two multibillion-dollar tunnels to remake the state's water system, before choosing to delay the vote until next week.
Support from the Santa Clara Valley Water District board could renew momentum behind one of the Democratic governor's top priorities as he prepares to leave office. The water district's potential reversal comes just weeks after a state water commission backed funding for a reservoir expansion that is a high priority for the area. Under a previous recommendation, the project wasn't eligible for money.
Gov. Jerry Brown wants to build two, 35-mile (55-kilometer) tunnels to divert water from the north to Southern California and the San Joaquin Valley.
He argues the twin tunnels will modernize California's water delivery system. But environmental groups fear it would drain too much water from the Sacramento River, the state's biggest river and part of the largest West Coast estuary.
The Santa Clara water district in October approved only a limited role in the project, committing money for a scaled back project featuring just one tunnel. Staff now recommends the board change course and throw its full support behind the project by committing up to $650 million to the construction of both tunnels.
The reversal comes less than two weeks after the California Water Commission staff released a favorable assessment about the public benefits of the district's Pacheco Reservoir expansion project, for which it is seeking $485 million. The commission's staff earlier determined the project wasn't eligible for funds. It was one of five projects found to be worthy of money after they were originally rejected.
The Water Commission consists of Brown appointees who can distribute $2.6 billion from a water bond approved by voters in 2014. It has not made a final decision on the Pacheco Reservoir project.
Water district staff estimates fully funding the tunnels would add $10.26 to each household's monthly water bill in northern Santa Clara County. Residents further south would pay an estimated $4.47 more monthly.
"I think they're being pressured by the governor's office," Barbara Barrigan-Parilla of the anti-tunnels group Restore the Delta.
It's false to suggest the district is reconsidering its position because of potential reservoir funding, Marty Grimes said, a spokesman for the water district. The original position to back one tunnel came after large users in California's Central Valley agricultural heartland rejected the project, putting its financing in doubt, Grimes said.
But when the large Metropolitan Water District in Southern California voted to fund the bulk of the project last month, calculations changed, he said.
"The board needs to reconsider that reality," Grimes said.
The MWD, which supplies water to 19 million people in the Los Angeles and San Diego areas, approved $10.8 billion in funding for the project, which is expected to cost nearly $17 billion in total.
This story has been updated to correct the name of the group opposing the tunnels project. It is Restore the Delta, not Save the Delta.