News Feature | July 28, 2016

Deep Suspicion Over Land Purchases By California Supplier

Sara Jerome

By Sara Jerome,

America’s largest treated water supplier is buying up land in northern California.

The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California (MWD), a consortium of 26 cities and water districts, provides drinking water to over 17 million people from Los Angeles to San Diego, according to Wired.

“On July 15, after three months in legal limbo, the [water district] became the proud owner of four rural islands and their water — 300 miles north of its jurisdiction,” Wired reported.

The $175-million purchase came less than a week after “the state Supreme Court lifted an order that had barred the water agency from buying the islands. The order was imposed after San Joaquin County, other local governments and environmental groups sued to block the sale of the islands,” the Los Angeles Times reported.

Northern districts are worried the purchase is a way for Southern California to siphon its water resources.

“They worry that the Metropolitan Water District and its southern farmer allies will [use tunnels] to overtap [waterways] and rob local people and fish of the water before it ever reaches the delta,” Wired reported.

A proposed $15-billion tunnel system backed by MWD “would carry Sacramento River water under the delta to the pumping operations that send supplies south,” the Los Angeles Times previously reported.

One issue is pump technology used to send water around the state.

“Those pumps are so powerful that they cause the water in the river to flow backwards, which allows salt water from the San Francisco Bay to creep inland and spoil the water for farmers in situ,” Wired reported. “The pumps also sully the ecosystem. Of particular interest are its effects on several species of endangered fish. When the pumps come on, fish die off.”

Jennifer Harder, water law expert at the University of the Pacific McGeorge School of Law in Sacramento, dismissed the idea that Southern California is trying to steal water from the north through land purchases.

“The tunnel project includes no new applications for extra water rights,” she said, per Wired. “Still, there’s some folks who believe the delta is impacted enough under the current status quo of pumping. They would like to see those diversions south reduced, as opposed to have their reliability increased.”

It may be “unlikely” that the land purchase is really a way to accumulate water rights, according to Wired.

“An early 20th century-style water grab is unlikely: This is probably a genuine effort to shore up the MWD’s existing water claims through earthquake preparation and ecological restoration,” the report said.