The Riggs Report: Twin tunnels & Jerry Brown’s art of persuasion

How the governor secured the vote to finance California’s twin tunnels

By now, we know about last week’s closely watched, dramatic vote by the giant Metropolitan Water District of Southern California to keep the controversial twin tunnel project alive with a massive infusion of financing.

Metropolitan agreed to spend nearly $11 billion of the $17 billion project, which has been dubbed the California WaterFix and is designed to facilitate deliveries of water from the troubled Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to the agency’s customers in Southern California.

“This is a historic decision that is good for California—our people, our farms and our natural environment,” Gov. Jerry Brown said in a statement.

Not so well-known is Brown’s aggressive behind-the-scenes role in rolling up the win. A key insider tells me the governor spent hours on the phone, seeking to ensure that wavering board members would be on board for the final vote.

I talked to Metropolitan General Manager Jeff Kightlinger last week during a stop in Los Angeles. Kightlinger has known Brown for years, but told me he had never seen the governor engaged in that kind of relentless lobbying mode.

How relentless? One example: Unable to reach one city mayor who sits on the board, Brown reportedly called the city’s police chief and instructed him to put the mayor on the phone with him.

I’ve seen Brown operate at full speed like this before and not always with success. In 2011, he shuttled in and out of closed door sessions with lawmakers, trying to win support for a package of higher taxes on sales, income and vehicles. In the end, he took the issue to the ballot, in the form of Proposition 30, and saw it passed by California voters.

Last year, Brown convinced a handful of Republicans to vote for a hotly disputed bill to extend the state’s cap-and-trade program, designed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Now, in his final year in office, Brown is running out of time to champion his key issues. The twin tunnel project became one of the last opportunities to demonstrate his political skills in protecting one of his administration’s top priorities.

Last year, the WaterFix project hit rough water when farming interests declined to pay their expected share. That left the financing plan in serious jeopardy. There was talk of scaling the project back from two tunnels to one.

In the end, Brown got a go-ahead for the two tunnels.

“Two tunnels better accomplishes WaterFix’s co-equal goals of improving the environment and securing supply reliability,” Kightlinger said in a statement. “With them, we’re better able to capture the high flows of big storms that climate change is expected to bring.”

Environmental and farming interests in the Delta despise the project and have filed numerous lawsuits that will take years to decide.

The project’s future is not guaranteed. But Brown’s role in securing last week’s vote tells us this: At 80 years old and in his final year in office, he is not coasting to the exits.