- Associated Press - Monday, April 11, 2016

FRESNO, Calif. (AP) - Southern California’s largest water district has signed a multimillion deal to buy several sprawling islands far north in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, drawing criticism for giving the powerful district a stronghold in the vital water hub, officials said Monday.

The deal worth $175 million will put the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California in ownership of 20,000 acres in the delta, a source of water for millions of residents throughout the state and some of the nation’s most valuable farmland.

Metropolitan provides 19 million residents with water, much of it shipped through canals from the delta east of San Francisco. The district is buying the land from the Zurich Insurance Group.

Metropolitan’s Steve Arakawa said the land could be used in the construction of two giant tunnels Gov. Jerry Brown proposes to build under the delta for shipping water south. Metropolitan is a major backer of the $15.7 billion tunnels project.

Even without the tunnels, the land could also be used for wetland restoration to improve water quality and help endangered fish in the delta, Arakawa said. Pumping from the delta is often cut back to protect fish, limiting supplies provided to Southern California.

“If fish aren’t doing well, the reliability of our water is affected negatively,” Arakawa said.

Metropolitan’s board approved the deal in March and plans to hold another meeting on the purchase later this month. District spokesman Bob Muir said board members don’t need to vote on it again, unless they encounter problems.

“If there are any red flags during escrow, they might need to take action in response,” he said.

Metropolitan is a wholesaler of water to local water districts, he added, so the deal does not need approval from the state’s Public Utilities Commission.

Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla of Restore the Delta is a leading critic of Metropolitan’s land purchase and the twin tunnels projects. She said she fears Metropolitan having a stronghold in the over-tapped delta. The advocacy group is collecting signatures in an attempt to stop the land purchase.

“We plan to continue fighting this in the court of public opinion and wherever else needed,” Barrigan-Parilla said. “It’s not over.”

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