State’s giant wa­ter tun­nels win first cru­cial ap­proval

Op­po­nents: Project will speed demise of cer­tain fish species


SAN FRAN­CISCO | U.S. wildlife of­fi­cials gave cru­cial first ap­proval Mon­day to Cal­i­for­nia Gov. Jerry Brown’s decades-old am­bi­tions to build two mas­sive tun­nels that would re-en­gi­neer the wa­ter sys­tem in the na­tion’s most pop­u­lous state.

The Na­tional Marine Fish­eries Ser­vice and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Ser­vice said the $16 bil­lion project likely will not en­dan­ger more than a dozen fed­er­ally listed species in the largest fresh­wa­ter es­tu­ary on the West Coast.

The project “is not likely to jeop­ar­dize the con­tin­ued ex­is­tence of any of these species, and is not likely to de­stroy or ad­versely mod­ify des­ig­nated crit­i­cal habi­tat,” Paul Souza, a re­gional di­rec­tor of the wildlife ser­vice, said in a let­ter.

The de­ci­sion is the first in a se­ries of fed­eral and state rul­ings that will de­ter­mine the fate of the pro­posed twin 35-mile tun­nels, Cal­i­for­nia’s big­gest wa­ter project in decades, that are ex­pected to take more than 10 years to com­plete.

The project would suck part of the Sacra­mento River into two four-story-high tun­nels run­ning be­low the river’s delta with the San Joaquin River.

Sup­port­ers say it would en­sure a re­li­able wa­ter sup­ply for cities, farms and tens of mil­lions of res­i­dents, most of them in South­ern and Cen­tral Cal­i­for­nia.

Op­po­nents say the project would speed the demise of some species of salmon and other na­tive wildlife, al­ready strug­gling af­ter decades of heavy state reliance on wa­ter from the delta.

The U.S. agen­cies ear­lier had ac­knowl­edged that the tun­nels would fur­ther harm Cal­i­for­nia’s Delta smelt — a once-abun­dant fish species that’s now nearly ex­tinct — and win­ter-run Chi­nook salmon, an­other en­dan­gered na­tive fish.

Ear­lier this month a group of wa­ter agen­cies in the Cen­tral Val­ley Project, the state’s largest wa­ter sup­plier, asked the U.S. Bureau of Recla­ma­tion to de­lay its own rul­ing on the project un­til the wa­ter agen­cies get as­sur­ances the project won’t cost them money or cut their own wa­ter sup­plies, in a let­ter ob­tained by The As­so­ci­ated Press. The bureau, whose ap­proval is crit­i­cal to the project, has not pub­licly re­sponded.

The project’s chances of fed­eral ap­proval may have re­ceived a boost from the elec­tion of Pres­i­dent Trump, who has said he backs big in­fra­struc­ture projects and more wa­ter for Cen­tral Cal­i­for­nia farm­ers.

Mr. Brown is the project’s most vo­cal backer, telling re­porters ear­lier this month that the tun­nels would al­low the state to re­duce its de­pen­dence on the giant me­chan­i­cal pumps that now draw wa­ter from the delta for use by the 25 mil­lion Cal­i­for­ni­ans who get part or all of their wa­ter from the state’s giant north-south wa­ter projects.

Along with wa­ter with­drawals, which make the delta warmer, nar­rower and shal­lower for fish, the pumps are one of the fac­tors harm­ing na­tive fish.

“There’s so many dams and chan­nels and by­passes — I don’t know if peo­ple are aware of how en­gi­neered our wa­ter sys­tem is,” Mr. Brown said, adding that the delta al­ready was no longer the wild habi­tat of “some myth­i­cal golden past.”

Mr. Brown has pushed vari­a­tions of the project since his first term four decades ago, in­clud­ing a ver­sion in the 1980s that would have cre­ated canals in­stead of tun­nels. Op­po­nents ar­gued that it would ben­e­fit South­ern Cal­i­for­nia at the ex­pense of the north, and Cal­i­for­ni­ans de­feated the pro­posal in a statewide vote.

It was Mr. Brown’s fa­ther, the late Gov. Pat Brown, who over­saw con­struc­tion of the state’s com­plex and ag­ing wa­ter sys­tem of aque­ducts, dams, lift­ing sta­tions and pumps.

Mean­while, sev­eral re­gional pub­lic wa­ter agen­cies that would get wa­ter from the tun­nels must also de­cide whether they will com­mit to pay­ing for the project. South­ern Cal­i­for­nia’s giant Metropoli­tan Wa­ter Dis­trict leads the push and is ex­pected to de­cide by early fall.

Three of­fi­cials in­volved in the project have told the AP that the po­lit­i­cally pow­er­ful wa­ter districts are now de­mand­ing to have a big­ger di­rect role in fi­nanc­ing, de­sign­ing and con­struc­tion of the tun­nels in­stead of the state. Proponents say that would speed con­struc­tion of the tun­nels.

Op­po­nents fear the shift could lead wa­ter districts to cut cor­ners on safety and en­vi­ron­men­tal mea­sures, as well as com­pel wa­ter districts to ex­tract and sell more wa­ter at a higher rate to pay off the huge bills for the tun­nels.

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