Southern California Water Agency Moves Ahead With Massive Delta Land Buy

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Bouldin Island, at left center, is part of the Metropolitan Water District's planned 20,000-acre land purchase in the Delta.  (Dan Brekke/KQED)

The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California is moving ahead with a plan to buy four islands in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta -- a purchase that would secure crucial property rights at the key nexus of the state's water distribution system.

The MWD board voted 28-3 on Tuesday to authorize a purchase option for just over 20,000 acres on four islands east of Antioch in eastern Contra Costa and western San Joaquin counties -- Webb Tract, Holland Tract, Bouldin Island and Bacon Island. The one-year option, which allows the district to assess the properties, would also include 240 acres on Chipps Island, on Suisun Bay in Solano County.

The proposed purchase has drawn criticism from environmentalist groups that oppose a state plan to revamp the way water flows through the Delta by building a pair of massive tunnels through the area. Critics have characterized the proposed purchase as part of the district's strategy to make it easier for the state to build the tunnel project.

MWD General Manager Jeff Kightlinger said after Tuesday's vote that part of the property may indeed play a role in the tunnel plan -- known formally as the Bay Delta Conservation Plan by government agencies and now being promoted as the California Water Fix by a coalition of state agencies and water interests, including the MWD.


Two of the islands included in the agreement lie directly on the proposed tunnel route. Kightlinger said if the tunnel moves forward, the islands could be used as sites for advance engineering work, for tunnel construction entry points and for dumping the immense amount of "debris and muck" that will be produced during excavation.

"The islands would make good spots for that, because some areas are 20 feet below sea level," Kightlinger said. "So you could both be rebuilding the islands, helping prevent flooding in the area and getting rid of the spoils. So it's sort of a win-win."

Kightlinger and district staff also say part of the island property could be used for habitat projects to stabilize threatened fish species. Endangered and threatened fish that use the Delta, including runs of salmon and steelhead and the Delta smelt, have led to some restrictions on pumping water south to the San Joaquin Valley and the Los Angeles area.

Kightlinger said there could be other environmental benefits, too.

"We see lots of good projects about waterfowl," he said. "On some of the islands would be really good duck properties. We see lots of good science opportunities -- carbon sequestration and growing tules to see if you can create islands back -- all sorts of things like that."

Opponents of the Delta tunnels on Tuesday reiterated their criticism of the project and MWD's apparent strategy in buying the islands.

"In secret, it appears MWD is getting into the land management business acquiring properties for a project that is neither approved, nor does it comply with federal and state water quality and environmental protection laws,” said Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla, executive director of Restore the Delta.

MWD is buying the property from Delta Wetlands Properties, owned by the U.S. subsidiary of Switzerland's Zurich Insurance Group. Delta Wetlands acquired most of the property in the 1980s and, along with Kern County's Semitropic Water Storage District, has been working on a plan that would turn two of the islands into reservoirs and use the rest of the land for habitat restoration.

Kightlinger said the possibility of water storage on the islands is of only secondary interest to the district. More important, he said, is the possibility that the water rights attached to the properties could help the district execute water transfers and secure supplies for its 19 million customers.

About 60 percent of the MWD's water now comes through the Delta. The district serves a 5,200-square-mile area that stretches from San Diego to the city of Oxnard in Ventura County.