The powerful Metropolitan Water District voted Tuesday to pay its share of the $16 billion project to build two massive tunnels to pipe water from Northern California to Southern California cities.
The 28-6 vote gives Gov. Jerry Brown's ambitious project an important boost of support after an influential agricultural group withdrew its backing last month.
The tunnels, which have been discussed in one form or another for generations, would pipe water around the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta — where Sierra Nevada water flows toward the sea — to a system of canals that deliver water to farms and residents mostly in the southern half of the state.
The vote came after spirited comment from supporters who said the project was a modern-day fix to improve reliability of water supplies that would also support jobs and critics who said it would inflate water prices for residents and projected it would further harm salmon and endangered fish in the delta.
While the vote was a powerful nod of support from a water wholesaler that supplies water to 19 million people in Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino, San Diego and Ventura counties, the fate of the 35-mile-long (56-kilometer-long) tunnels, however, remained somewhat uncertain.
The board of the Westlands Water District, the nation's largest supplier of irrigation water to farms, voted three weeks ago to withdraw its participation from the project. Westlands is the largest district among farm groups that were expected to cover about 45 percent of the costs of the project.
Metropolitan General Manager Jeff Kightlinger said the future of the project will depend on votes scheduled in the next week by other agencies.
Depending on how those votes go, he plans to discuss with state and federal government how to make up the loss of Westlands funding or to downscale the project, possibly to one tunnel.
"It's a very historic vote, but the journey still has a long way to go as we try and get to closure," Kightlinger said.
The vote came less than a week after Brown traveled to Southern California and met with several members of the Metropolitan board to earn their support.