By SCOTT SMITH and ELLEN KNICKMEYER
FRESNO — In California’s long-raging water wars, pitting north against south and farmer against city dweller, the one thing everybody agreed on Wednesday was that the outdated method of shipping water throughout the most populous state needs a serious upgrade.
A group of influential California farmers shook up the debate a day earlier, backing out of Gov. Jerry Brown’s $16 billion plan to build two massive water tunnels, re-engineering the north-south delivery system. Westlands Water District in Fresno said it was too expensive and came with too few guarantees.
Brown’s administration, however, gave no sign of giving up. Other key water districts serving vast farmland in the most productive agricultural state and millions of residents still have to weigh in, including the behemoth Metropolitan Water District of Southern California.
“I don’t think a ‘no’ vote is the end of the story,” said Metropolitan’s general manager, Jeffrey Kightlinger. “We don’t live in a world where we can just turn off the projects and walk away.”
Kightlinger sees a path to launch the project before Brown leaves office next year. It’s impossible to predict what form it will take before all the water districts have voted on whether they’re in or out.
The proposed 35-mile-long tunnels, however, can’t survive as it’s drawn up now without “big players,” such as Westlands, said Kightlinger, who entertains the possibility of a scaled-down project.
Current plans call for building twin tunnels east of San Francisco to deliver water from the Sacramento River mostly to farms and cities hundreds of miles away in central and Southern California.
Backers say the tunnels will stabilize flows, save endangered fish species and ensure a reliable water supply. However, critics say it will be used to drain Northern California dry and further harm native fish.
It is California’s most ambitious water project in more than 50 years, when state and federal officials launched a hard-fought campaign to win support for building the current system of reservoirs, pumping stations and canals.
Westlands’ farmers on Tuesday became the first of several large water districts to vote, pulling out after having spent millions over more than a decade on drawing up plans and calculating costs.
The shake-up forced a big moment for the players to take stock of the whole water system, said Jay Lund, a leading state water expert at the University…