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Delta tunnels won’t get green light before Gov. Brown leaves office. What will Gavin Newsom do?

State officials pulled back on their effort Friday to secure a crucial green light for the Delta tunnels project, all but ensuring that the controversial plan to re-engineer the West Coast’s largest estuary will remain in limbo after Gov. Jerry Brown leaves office.

Facing a likely defeat, the Department of Water Resources withdrew its petition to the Delta Stewardship Council to have the project deemed in compliance with what’s known as the the Delta Plan, a set of policy goals, mandated by state law, that put protection and restoration of the fragile Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta estuary’s eco-system on an equal footing with more reliable water supplies.

Without the council’s green light, the $16.7 billion project, known officially as California WaterFix, can’t go forward.

As a consequence, regulatory approval for WaterFix almost certainly won’t be completed before Brown’s term as governor runs out this year. Brown has championed the project for years, but his successor, Gov.-elect Gavin Newsom, has taken a more lukewarm attitude toward WaterFix and has said it might have to be scaled back to one tunnel instead of two.

The decision by DWR Director Karla Nemeth was hailed as a victory, at least in the short term, for opponents of the project, which is designed to overhaul how Northern California river water gets delivered through the Delta to farms and cities in the southern half of the state.

“Now they have to go back to the drawing board and prepare a new certificate,” said Kelley Taber, a Sacramento lawyer who represents several local governments that are fighting the project.

Taber said it isn’t clear how long that will take, but “it’s hard to see how these issues could be fixed quickly.”

But DWR expressed confidence the project was not imperiled.

“WaterFix will continue to move forward,” DWR spokeswoman Erin Mellon said in an email. “We will work with the Delta Stewardship Council to resolve issues related to Delta Plan interpretation and plan to submit a revised certification.”

An obscure state agency formed in 2009, the Delta Stewardship Council was set to vote Dec. 20 on whether the tunnels project complies with the Delta Plan.

But it was clear that the Stewardship Council wasn’t likely to go along with the state’s application. The council’s staff on Nov. 15 said the Brown administration hadn’t proven that the south-state water agencies have done enough to reduce their reliance on Delta water shipments, as the Delta Plan mandates. The staff also criticized DWR for not using updated analysis of how climate change would affect tunnels operations, and it said the project poses major “conflicts with land uses in existing Delta communities.”

At a council meeting in November, board Chairman Randy Fiorini ripped the Brown administration for “political expediency” and rushing the application before it was ready.

In her letter to Fiorini, Nemeth defended the petition but said her agency “appreciates that there are unresolved issues” regarding the project.

Tunnels backers acknowledged it was a setback, but they hoped not a major one.

“I hope it’s just a time issue, like a fix-it ticket,” said Jeff Kightlinger, general manager for the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, the massive Los Angeles urban water agency that’s WaterFix’s biggest booster. “Rather than fight it and appeal it, I figured, let’s just pull it back we’ll get that more information to them and move forward. ... We’ve been working on this over a decade. A few months isn’t going to kill anything.”

Metropolitan agreed in April to bankroll $10.8 billion of WaterFix’s total cost, breathing new life into a project that was sputtering because of funding shortfalls. South-of-Delta water agencies are supposed to pay for the entire project.

The withdrawal comes as the tunnels project falls under attack from other quarters.

Environmentalists, who are generally opposed to the tunnels, say the Trump administration is threatening to withhold support for WaterFix unless California officials agree to significant changes in how water is shipped through the Delta. The Trump administration is trying to streamline environmental rules that sometimes interfere with Delta pumping operations — which means billions of gallons of water sometimes bypass the delivery pumps and flows out to the ocean, leaving less water for the farmers and cities.

The state and federal government pumps, located at the south end of the Delta, are so powerful that they can cause the river channels in the south Delta to run backward, causing endangered smelt and winter-run Chinook salmon to migrate toward the pumps and predatory fish that gather to eat them at the intakes.

The tunnels, a pair of 35-mile-long underground pipes, are designed to bring some of the water from the Sacramento River near Courtland south of Sacramento directly to the pumping stations.The pumps then wouldn’t have to churn so hard, tamping down the “reverse flow” problem and allowing water deliveries to proceed with fewer problems for the fish.

Environmentalists, however, say the tunnels would actually worsen the Delta’s ecosystem and deprive the region’s farmers of much of the fresh water they need to grow grapes, corn and other crops.

“Today is a good day for the Delta and California,” said Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla of Restore the Delta, a tunnels opponent. “But it’s not over yet.”

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