By John Ramos

SACRAMENTO (KPIX 5) – Environmentalists have filed a lawsuit after the federal government said last week that Northern California’s delta tunnels project would not harm endangered fish in the delta and bay.

That decision gave the project a big boost.

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The state wants to build two huge tunnels that would take water from the Sacramento River, ship the water under the delta and send that river water to existing aqueducts that already send delta water south.

Californians have been fighting over water for generations. Remember all the talk of a peripheral canal? The state eventually pulled the plug on that after lots of opposition.

Northern Californians are trying to kill the tunnel project too.

Currently, so much water is being sucked from the south end of the delta that, in places, water actually flows in a reverse direction. It’s harming endangered fish and preventing a natural cleansing action.

The state says that besides providing earthquake protection, the tunnels would allow fresh water flow to help equalize the system.

Nancy Vogel with the California Natural Resources Agency said, “We will gain flexibility. We’ll be able to pull from either the north or the south depending on where we can do the least environmental harm when we’re drawing water.”

It’s estimated the 35-mile long tunnels will cost $16 billion to build and would be paid for by the receivers of the water — mainly, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California and West San Joaquin Valley farmers.

The state sees it as a way to insure the safety of the system and insists that they would get no additional water from the delta.

“You should think of it as an insurance policy…to insure that the supply you’re getting now you continue to get,” Vogel said.

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But the people who live out here don’t buy that.

They say if the Metropolitan Water District and the Westside, Fresno County farmers are going to put up billions of dollars to build this thing they are going to expect something in return.

They’re going to want more water.

Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla with a group called Restore the Delta, doesn’t believe this is about making the supply more secure.

“It’s profit-motivated. It’s the ability to sell water,” she said.

She believes Metropolitan is considering issuing bonds to fund $8 billion of the cost so they would become too big to fail in the eyes of the state.

“They’re going to expect more water and they are going to leverage their debt position with the government to give them the water,” Barrigan-Parrilla said.

No matter how many environmental hurdles the state clears, if the water districts do not agree to pay for it, the project fails.

Many in Northern California wonder what that kind of leverage will ultimately mean for the delta.

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Even if the Southern California water districts come up with the money, the state and federal governments will have to issue a number of permits before construction can begin.