Gov. Jerry Brown, left, and Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom / Photos by Sam Hodgson and Shutterstock

Water officials and members of Gov. Jerry Brown’s administration rushed to seal the deal on a multibillion-dollar plan to build two tunnels to move water south from Northern California partly out of fear that Gavin Newsom could undo the whole plan if he becomes governor, newly released documents show.

In fact, the jockeying was so intense, watchdog groups have alleged the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California broke state open meeting laws when it approved the project two months ago, and now Metropolitan is planning to re-vote.

Jeffrey Kightlinger, the longtime general manager of Metropolitan, thought he and the Brown administration had a deal in early April. Despite Brown’s support for a $17 billion plan to build the tunnels, there was only enough money on the table to build one tunnel, not two.

So, instead of trying to do both, they would just build one – but they had to get things moving fast enough that neither Newsom or Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti could team up to kill the project. Brown has been working on some version of this water project since the 1980s.

For several generations, water officials have been trying to ensure water continues flowing south from the rivers of Northern California, but a combination of environmental opposition, concerns about cost and Northern vs. Southern California politics has killed previous plans.

Newsom has said he wants a “more modest” water project than the twin tunnels, and Garcetti only wants to build one tunnel, not two. After studying the project for years, the Brown administration argues building both tunnels is the best way to protect the water supply for millions of Southern Californians and billions of dollars’ worth of Central Valley farmland.

The recent jockeying shows how desperate officials are to get something done before Brown leaves office and the project is dead for another generation. It’s no secret that Brown is worried the next governor would drop the project, but a specific worry about Newsom has rarely been stated clearly or publicly.

Kightlinger said in a text message on Monday, April 2 that Brown administration officials felt “Gavin could be free to revisit the issue if a final project not decided upon now,” according to documents released by Metropolitan in response to a public records request from watchdog groups and Voice of San Diego.

He added, “And a Gavin revisit likely supported by Garcetti.”

So, one tunnel it was.

But Kightlinger ran into unexpected opposition from his 38-member board.

“You have thrown in the towel; the governor has thrown in the towel,” Brett Barbre, a Metropolitan board member from Orange County, texted back to Kightlinger.

According to the texts, at 5:30 that evening, Kightlinger told Barbre he hadn’t truly given up on building two tunnels – even though at a 2 p.m. press conference, Kightlinger had said he was recommending a one-tunnel plan, with the option of building a second one later.

The next day, Tuesday, Barbre wanted to talk with Kightlinger by phone because he didn’t want to “blindside” Kightlinger with what Barbre had begun doing: rounding up votes to pay for two tunnels.

By the end of the day, Barbre thought he had 28 percent of the board’s support to build two tunnels, even if that meant Metropolitan would be on the hook for billions more.

Metropolitan gathers water from Northern California and the Colorado River and then resells that water to smaller water agencies across Southern California, including San Diego. When Metropolitan’s costs go up, so do water bills.

By Wednesday, Barbre was telling Kightlinger how Brown could get involved and help get more votes.

Barbre suggested that the governor call Leticia Vásquez-Wilson, a board member who represents a water district in Southeast Los Angeles. Barbre said Brown should remind her of a photo she took with the governor the year before.

“Make sure the governor reminds Leticia that they took a selfie together,” Barbre told Kightlinger. “Could be enough to flatter her into a yes vote.”

In an email the next day, Barbre rued that Stephen Faessel, a Metropolitan board member and Anaheim city councilman, was still on the fence. Barbre told another board member that Faessel needed to a “grow a pair.”

By the end of the day, Faessel said “yes” and gave Barbre a slim majority – 52 percent of the board, according to records Metropolitan and Barbre provided to VOSD.

Brown himself began making calls to try to persuade Metropolitan board members to support paying for both tunnels.

It worked: On Tuesday, April 10, the Metropolitan board voted to spend $11 billion to build both tunnels. The rest of the money will come from smaller water agencies scattered throughout the state.

Except now there’s questions about whether all the behind-the-scenes work was illegal.

This week, Metropolitan said it would re-do the April vote, following allegations that Barbre and others violated California open meetings laws.

Barbre says he was just doing his job, but two watchdog groups – Food & Water Watch and the First Amendment Coalition – accused Barbre and other Metropolitan officials of illegally working behind closed doors.

Barbre said he did nothing wrong and was just doing what good politicians do, which is figuring out if they have support for their ideas.

“It’s not against the law to count votes, and I always count votes,” he said in an interview. “If it’s against the law to count votes, then you shouldn’t teach people how to count.”

Brenna Norton, an organizer for Food & Water Watch, said Barbre needs training in open meetings laws, which are designed to prevent decisions from being made in private.

“It’s too bad that watchdog groups like ours have to force water agencies like the Metropolitan Water District to follow the law,” she said.

Public agency decisions can be overturned by the courts if they are done in violation of open meetings laws. Metropolitan maintains it didn’t act illegally. But, while Metropolitan may simply be trying to avoid a lawsuit that could further complicate the project, its plan to hold another vote on July 10 is an embarrassing setback for the agency and the governor’s project.

If nothing else, the re-vote in July gives tunnel opponents – including environmental activists and some water officials from Los Angeles and San Diego – another chance to stall the project.

Barbre said there’s evidence the whole re-vote was pushed in part by the San Diego County Water Authority, which he said was working through back channels with Food & Water Watch. In the past, the Water Authority has worked with opponents of the twin tunnels, though the Water Authority recently voted to support the project.

A spokeswoman for Food & Water Watch did not deny working with the Water Authority. The Water Authority did not immediately respond to request for comment.

Barbre does seem to be a good vote counter. When he became a Metropolitan board member, he had his staff in Orange County create a tool for him to count votes – which can be complicated because voting power at Metropolitan is weighted based on property values.

On March 18, Barbre tried to figure out how many Metropolitan board members would vote to ensure both tunnels were built, even if Metropolitan had to pony up a lot more money. He guessed about 61 percent of the board would vote for the idea.

On April 10, 61 percent of the board voted to support both tunnels.

Ry Rivard

Ry Rivard was formerly a reporter for Voice of San Diego. He wrote about water and power.

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