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Give us a chance to vote on the tunnels

Dino Cortopassi saw this coming in 2016, but too few voters believed him.

The businessman, farmer and founder of Modesto’s Stanislaus Food Products, knew that Gov. Jerry Brown and the Metropolitan Water District would eventually try again to re-route the Sacramento River south to Southern California. Their first attempt, during Brown’s first stint as governor in 1982, ended when voters profoundly rejected the Peripheral Canal (voting 9-to-1 against it in some districts).

This time, they devised a scheme to build a pair of tunnels, each 40-feet in diameter, capable of sending the entire Sacramento River beneath the Delta and directly to the southbound pumps. The key was to keep voters from interfering. Brown and Met decided to finance their tunnels with bonds paid for by those who get the water, thus requiring no statewide vote.

That’s why Cortopassi came up with Proposition 53 – the No Blank Checks initiative. It would have required any infrastructure project financed with $3 billion or more in general revenue bonds to get statewide voter approval. Though he built in exemptions for local projects, an intensely deceptive advertising campaign muddied the public’s perception. In the closest vote for any proposition, Prop 53 lost by just 1 percent – 151,646 votes among 13.2 million cast.

Metropolitan didn’t need nearly that many votes Tuesday to get its way. Met’s 38-member board approved an $11 billion plan to finance the two tunnels they believe will deliver ever more water south. But don’t blame every Southern Californian.

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti called the tunnels a “Mulholland moment,” referring to a previous generation’s water grab which turned the once abundant Owens Valley into a desert. The San Diego Water Authority objected because Met low-balled the impact on consumers, saying bills would rise only $5 a month. San Diego says it will be closer to $16.

Such a decision shouldn’t be left up to a few dozen water board members or even a few dozen judges, who surely will see this issue in their courtrooms. The people of California should have gotten a say.

Farmers, fishermen, environmentalists and most of the editorial writers north of Bakersfield have railed against the tunnels – including The Modesto Bee. We don’t believe Brown’s contention that restoring the Delta is part of his so-called California WaterFix plan. There are better and less costly ways to fix the Delta and save fish species.

Thursday, the San Jose Mercury News called for a statewide vote, saying the tunnels offer the “potential for a Southern California water grab of historic proportions.” Well said. Unfortunately, the Mercury News didn’t see the wisdom in Cortopassi’s Prop 53 – which would have guaranteed such a vote.

Neither did we – at least not unanimously. The Bee’s editorial board was split, and we made no endorsement, trusting voters to make their own wise decisions. And they did. San Joaquin County voters passed Prop 53 with 57 percent of the vote. In Stanislaus County, 58 percent voted for it – the highest approval rate of any county in the state.

Voters are entitled to vote on something that will profoundly and irrevocably alter our state. Perhaps Cortopassi will revive his “No Blank Checks” proposition. Someone should.

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