Gov. Jerry Brown presses feds for quick review of Delta water tunnel project

04/26/2013 12:00 AM

04/28/2013 9:24 AM

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

In a letter to the U.S. secretaries of Interior and Commerce, Brown urges that they release their environmental review and file a decision on whether the project can proceed by this summer. The goal is to ensure their process meshes with Brown's proposed timing for completion of a state-level environmental impact report and associated planning documents.

"I stand willing to mobilize whatever resources we have at our disposal to assist the federal government in their document review," Brown wrote in a letter dated Monday. "My office staff and the 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 proposal calls for construction of three massive intakes on the Sacramento River serving two tunnels, each 35 miles long and 40 feet in diameter. They would deliver water to existing state and federal diversion canals near Tracy. The plumbing is projected to cost $14 billion.

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

The Brown administration is pressing for approvals to be completed by the end of this year.

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

It's not clear whether the federal government will expedite approval. Federal fishery agencies, overseen by Interior and Commerce, continue to express concerns about the project's potential effect on wildlife, as stated in letters submitted to the state two weeks ago.

And in a joint statement issued Thursday, four House Democrats representing the Bay Area and Central Valley, as well as Rep. Doris Matsui, a Sacramento Democrat, questioned the Brown administration's commitment to conducting a fair review of the project.

"The Brown administration continues to fail the Delta and its residents," said Rep. Jerry McNerney, D-Stockton.

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

Brown's letter follows growing pressure from the water agencies funding the project, including the Kern County Water Agency, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California and Westlands Water District. They agreed to pay $240 million toward planning efforts. Nearly all that has been spent, and they are concerned that delays beyond this year would require still more money.

The Kern County Water Agency wrote to Brown in February, threatening to withdraw from the plan if federal agencies don't review – and support – the project 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.

Contact The Bee's Matt Weiser at (916) 321-1264. Follow him on Twitter @matt_weiser.

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