SACRAMENTO (CBS/AP) — Gov. Jerry Brown’s plans to build two giant tunnels to move Northern California water southward moved one step closer to a final state and federal decision Thursday, with the state’s release of a more than 90,000-page environmental review Thursday supporting the $15.7 billion project.
Brown’s administration is pushing toward federal and state decisions whether to permit the 35-mile-long, 40-foot-wide tunnels, touted to ensure more reliable water deliveries to city and farm water agencies in central and Southern California.
The state’s environmental report concludes the tunnels, while taking 5 percent more water from the Sacramento River, would be the least disruptive of all possible options for water deliveries from California’s largest river.
Brown’s earlier proposals to redo water delivery from the Sacramento near its meeting with the San Joaquin River include a canal plan rejected by voters in 1982, and a broader version of the tunnels that federal regulators objected to in 2014, saying it could threaten endangered species.
Brown said Thursday the proposed tunnels and the discarded earlier versions of the project had been subjected to “more environmental review than any other project in the history of the world.”
The tunnels project “is absolutely essential if California is to maintain a reliable water supply,” Brown said in a statement.
Brown’s administration and water agencies in central and Southern California are the main backers of the project.
Opponents include some Northern California water districts and farmers, and environmental groups, which fear losing more water and habitat for salmon, steelhead, sturgeon and dozens of other native fish and other wildlife already suffering under the Delta’s more than half-century-old waterworks of pumps, pipes and canals.
“We just don’t think that the only answer is to take more water out of a river in crisis,” said Osha Meserve, a lawyer working with Northern California farmers and conservationists opposed to the project. “Ninety-thousand pages, or a million pages, don’t explain why that’s a good idea.”
Project opponents with the advocacy group Restore the Delta said regulators still need to take a careful look at the extensive documents released Thursday.
“How thoughtful of Delta Tunnel lead agencies to dump this document on defenders of the San Francisco Bay-Delta estuary just before the holidays,” Restore the Delta executive director Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla said.
“We will begin digging through the information, evaluating agency replies to public comments included in this document, engage in the process moving forward and prepare for litigation if required,” she said.
The tunnels project still needs an agreement on financing it by the water districts that would benefit from it, plus federal and state decisions on whether the project would comply with endangered species laws.
Supporters of the tunnels argue the project would be better for wildlife than the current waterworks, which include pumps strong enough to make the San Joaquin River flow backward, pulling migrating fish off course.
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