Governor urges fast review of Delta tunnels

Published: Thursday, Apr. 25, 2013 - 3:12 pm
Last Modified: Thursday, Apr. 25, 2013 - 3:25 pm

Gov. Jerry Brown wants federal officials to expedite review of the controversial Bay Delta Conservation Plan, his proposal to build two giant water diversion tunnels in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

In a letter to the U.S. secretaries of Interior and Commerce, Brown called on the agencies to release an environmental impact statement and Federal Register notice on the project this summer. The intent is to ensure this process coincides with his own administration's plan to release a state-level environmental impact report and associated planning documents.

"l stand willing to mobilize whatever resources we have at our disposal to assist the federal government in their document review," Brown wrote in the letter, sent Monday. "My office staff and Department of Water Resources, the

agency responsible for the plan, are ready and able to provide funding, staff time, consulting, or whatever else it takes to get this done."

The Bay Delta Conservation Plan calls for three pumping stations on the Sacramento River to divert water into two giant tunnels. The tunnels, each 35 miles long and 40 feet in diameter, would deliver water to existing state and federal diversion canals near Tracy. The plumbing is projected to cost $14 billion, to be funded by water agencies that benefit from the tunnels.

Associated habitat projects, totaling 100,000 acres and another $4 billion, would be funded by state taxpayers at large.

The project seeks 50-year operating permits under both the state and federal endangered species acts, hence the dual processes.

The Brown administration intends to complete its approval by the end of this year. But there are signs that approval by both state and federal agencies may slip into 2014 or even 2015, given the project's complexities.

Federal fishery agencies, which are overseen by Interior and Commerce, continue to express serious concerns about the project's effect on Delta wildlife, as stated in detailed comment letters they submitted just two weeks ago.

"Whenever you have schedule slippages, it costs money," said Richard Stapler, spokesman for the state Natural Resources Agency. "We just wanted to impress upon them that we'd like to stick with the current schedule."

Brown's letter comes amid increasing pressure from water agencies funding the project, which includes Kern County Water Agency, Metropolitan Water District of Southern California and Westlands Water District. They have committed to pay $240 million toward planning efforts, nearly all of which has been spent over the past seven years.

They are growing concerned that delaying approval beyond this year will require still more money.

The Kern County Water Agency wrote Brown in February, threatening to "withdraw" from the Bay Delta Conservation Plan if federal agencies don't finish reviewing the project -- and support it -- by July 1.

"Our position is, if it's going to cost more than $240 million before the public draft comes out, we don't have any ability to fund that for you," said Brent Walthall, assistant general manager of the Kern County agency.

Delta residents, along with many environmental groups, oppose the project and are skeptical of attempts to speed up the approval process.

"Cutting corners is not a way to get a successful outcome," said Doug Obegi, an attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council. "Using sound science is, even if that means we have to take less water out of the Delta."

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.

Read more articles by Matt Weiser



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