A draft plan for a massive Delta water diversion will not be completed by the end of June as expected, state officials announced Friday.
The news brought a round of finger-pointing by some of the government agencies involved, which seemed to boil down to one key issue: They can't agree what to build.
The massive project is designed to both improve water deliveries from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and restore its imperiled fish species. The Delta is a source of drinking water for 25 million Californians, a demand that has strained aquatic habitat.
Known as the Bay Delta Conservation Plan, the centerpiece is a pair of giant tunnels to divert a portion of the Sacramento River directly to existing state and federal diversion pumps near Tracy.
The project is backed by major urban and agricultural water agencies. They have spent $150 million so far on studies for a project that may ultimately cost $30 billion.
The money has gone to study a "preliminary project" that includes twin tunnels capable of diverting 15,000 cubic feet per second from five pump stations between Freeport and Courtland.
The process has been led by the California Department of Water Resources and its parent entity, the state Natural Resources Agency.
On Thursday, Natural Resources Secretary John Laird wrote to the U.S. Department of Interior to say that a draft plan will not be ready in June. He did not clearly explain the delay but said, "We will soon be able to announce some significant adjustments in the overall program that will reflect our commitment to using the best science."
The statement was apparently a nod to concerns expressed by state and federal wildlife agencies that the "preliminary project" may, in fact, harm some species it is supposed to restore. That prospect was revealed in a trove of documents released by the Natural Resources Agency in March.
In particular, complicated changes in water diversions, dam operations and canal flows to accommodate diversion tunnels may harm upstream habitat for species such as green sturgeon, Delta smelt and chinook salmon.
The wildlife agencies have been at the planning table with the water agencies for years as the conservation project unfolded, a level of involvement expected to streamline the process.
But in April, the wildlife agencies prepared so-called "red flag memos" to detail their concerns. The memos were a clear sign that they are not willing to endorse a project that may harm some species.
"The federal agencies, from what we're seeing, are the ones that are really not stepping up and making the hard decisions," said Terry Erlewine, general manager of the State Water Contractors, a consortium of agencies that buy Delta water from DWR. "That's where the delay has happened."
Erlewine specifically mentioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and National Marine Fisheries Service, the agencies charged with protecting endangered sturgeon, smelt and salmon.
Without agreement on a project description, it is difficult to complete a draft plan and environmental impact study. Hence the delay.
But Gary Bobker, a program director at the Bay Institute, said the real problem is a project that overreaches.
"I think the finger-pointing at the feds is just baloney," said Bobker. "At the end of the day, the preliminary project has turned out to be a dog that won't hunt."
The California Department of Fish and Game, charged with protecting the same fish under the state Endangered Species Act, has also expressed concern about the project's environmental effects and joined in producing the red-flag memos.
Also, consultants working on the conservation plan who are effectively paid by the water agencies have identified similar shortcomings.
"I don't know if we really consider that there are disagreements," said Steve Martarano, a spokesman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. "The consultants for both sides have said that we can't meet the needs of the species (with the project) as described."
The Kern County Water Agency is prepared to take its objections one step further. In a letter to Laird on Wednesday, the agency's board president, Terry Rogers, wrote that his agency will withdraw from the Bay Delta Conservation Plan unless the state and federal government agree on a project description at meetings set for May 17-18.
It will stay involved, he wrote, if DWR commits to carry the project forward without federal cooperation.
Kern is the largest buyer of Delta water from the State Water Project, operated by DWR.
"It's our hope the federal agencies and state agencies are aware of the serious nature of the situation," said Jim Beck, Kern's general manager.