In a multimillion-dollar deal, Southern California’s major water provider is acquiring five tracts of land in the heart of the Sacramento Delta, where the state is proposing to re-engineer water delivery systems. With the land purchase, the Metropolitan Water District is also raising suspicions among its new neighbors.
Zurich American, a subsidiary of a Swiss insurance company, is selling Metropolitan about 20,000 acres, including Bacon Island, Bouldin Island, Webb Tract, most of Holland Tract and a piece of Chipps Island.
Two of the tracts are in the path of Gov. Jerry Brown’s $17 billion California WaterFix, which would re-plumb the systems connecting Northern California to the thirsty South. The centerpiece of the fix is two tunnels, 50 feet wide, that would act as straws, moving water around and away from the region for the use of thirsty cities and some farmers.
“Right now you’re looking at some of the best prime farmland in California,” says Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla, executive director of Restore the Delta. A fat levee road surrounds Bacon Island’s bowl of land, west of Stockton in San Joaquin County. Farmers grow corn and alfalfa here, in dark rich soil.
“The delta reminds me of Ireland -- you have the similarities between the peat soil, and when it’s green here in the spring it’s just absolutely stunning,” she says.
Levees have protected the sinking soils of Bacon Island for almost 150 years. Beyond them is some open water and wetland marshes. A western meadowlark calls on a windy day. It’s one of many reasons Barrigan-Parrilla opposes the California WaterFix.
“This is where the tunnels would come through,” she says. “If the tunnels were built, you’d be looking at piles of muck. Coffer dams. Construction.”
It’s not just Bacon Island. Barrigan-Parrilla argues the purchase is an existential threat to the delta -- and a grab for the region’s water.
“Metropolitan Water District is positioning itself so that it can have as much water as it wants to export in a watershed that is actually in decline because of climate change,” she argues.
Metropolitan’s general manager, Jeff Kightlinger, denies this.
“It’s not a water grab there, in the sense of getting more.” In fact, he says, “our water supply depends on a healthy functioning delta ecosystem, and we don’t have that.”
Metropolitan is the major financial backer of the California WaterFix. Kightlinger acknowledges that buying the islands could help get those tunnels built, by heading off potential eminent domain fights over access to the route. But he says the purchase wouldn’t dramatically increase the populous South’s rights to Northern California water.
“It actually just makes it safer and more effective to move that water,” he says.
Current landowner Zurich American has sought to use some of the land for water storage and marketing.
While Metropolitan says it has not finalized plans for the land, Kightlinger says water storage isn’t under consideration. Instead, the district may restore habitat, on the theory that a more healthy delta can more regularly deliver supplies south. Kightlinger calls this “enlightened self-interest.”
Some of the land could serve as staging areas for the WaterFix, and storage for construction materials. And yes, twin tunnels could wriggle under Bacon and Bouldin Islands. Kightlinger says that’s preferable to an agricultural use.
“Every year there is further farming causing these islands to shrink and subside, and as they subside they become a threat to the entire state of California,” he says.
Delta interests rebuke that assertion. And according to Stockton lawyers George V. Hermann and Dante Nomellini, restrictions on land use in existing covenants may be able to block Metropolitan’s plans.
Nomellini, who represents neighbors to the island in the Central Delta Water Agency, says Zurich American signed agreements restricting activity on the land back in 2013, including conditions that could keep out the tunnels.
He believes those deals should be honored fully. “What I want is, I want the new buyer to sign our settlement agreement,” Nomellini says.
Nobody at Metropolitan has called Hermann or Nomellini to discuss the agreements. Kightlinger says that since Southern California’s land use plans in the delta don’t include reservoirs, the agreements born from a dispute related to reservoirs don’t apply.
Still, both men say that on behalf of their clients that they’ll do everything possible to enforce the law.
Hermann points out that pumping water to the south over a period of many years has degraded the ecosystem. And Nomellini says he remains suspicious about Kightlinger’s motives. In the delta, opposition to Metropolitan is high and trust in the agency is low.
“I describe them as a dog that kills chickens,” says Nomellini. “They’re real aggressive in the water field, and we in the delta look like chickens.”
It’s far from certain the California WaterFix will move forward. Elected officials from Northern California and delta interests continue to protest vehemently. Last month, the State Water Resources Control Board delayed hearings on the project at the request of another state agency, the Department of Water Resources. And federal agencies have demanded more information about the project, including sending environmental documents back for further analysis.
The purchase also remains controversial with Metropolitan’s own members -- two of the largest, Los Angeles and San Diego, opposed the sale, as did Santa Monica. As a result of debate at a meeting in March, Metropolitan’s executive board is slated to revisit the contract later this month, at a special meeting called for April 26.