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Let the lawsuits begin: Delta tunnels get official state green light

See where the proposed Delta tunnels would go

The twin tunnels would take water from the Sacramento River and transport it under the Delta. See which islands and rivers they would cross.
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The twin tunnels would take water from the Sacramento River and transport it under the Delta. See which islands and rivers they would cross.

Gov. Jerry Brown’s administration gave the official go-ahead Friday for his controversial plan to bore two huge tunnels beneath the heart of Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

The state Department of Water Resources said it had finalized the lengthy environmental review of the $17.1 billion Delta tunnels project, officially known as California WaterFix. In what’s known as a “Notice of Determination,” regulators said building and operating the tunnels complies with the California Environmental Quality Act and won’t harm fish, wildlife or human health.

The move came as little surprise to those following the decade-long push to build the project. Brown’s administration has long argued the 35-mile twin tunnels would improve environmental conditions in the troubled Delta. By re-routing a portion of the Sacramento River’s flow through the tunnels, Brown has said the federal and state pumping stations in the southern part of the estuary will do less harm to fish – and be able to deliver water more reliably to 25 million Southern Californians and Bay Area residents and millions of acres of San Joaquin Valley farmland.

DWR Acting Director Cindy Messer said the document is “a major milestone” that will “put WaterFix a step closer to construction, which could begin as early as 2018.” Construction will take at least a decade.

At the same time, Messer said the state expects to get sued over the document by the project’s numerous opponents, who include Delta landowners, environmentalists and others.

Indeed, Friday’s decision, more than any other so far, paves the way for a flood of litigation over the tunnels project. Legal experts said the state’s strict environmental law, known as CEQA, can often serve as a powerful tool for opponents to stand in the way of a project, at least temporarily.

“It does slow things down for sure,” said George Hartmann, a Stockton lawyer who represents Delta farmers opposed to the tunnels. He said litigation is likely to begin “in short order.”

Barbara Barrigan-Parilla of Restore the Delta, one of the project’s fiercest opponents, added, “The bottom line is there are so many flaws in the project ... that we and other parties throughout the Delta and the state will prepare to litigate.”

In spite of the official state approvals, the project is far from certain.

The south-of-Delta water agencies that would have to pay for the tunnels still haven’t signed off on the project. The powerful Metropolitan Water District of Southern California and Kern County Water Agency appear ready to make financial commitments this fall. But at least one key water agency is wavering. Farmers at the Westlands Water District, an influential agency covering much of Fresno and Kings counties, said they remain unconvinced after hearing detailed projections on cost during a meeting earlier this week.

DWR’s document was released less than a month after two federal fisheries agencies gave their approvals to the project. In a pair of long-awaited decisions, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service said the tunnels aren’t likely to jeopardize the continued existence of Delta smelt, Chinook salmon, steelhead and other fish protected by the Endangered Species Act. Days later, fishing groups and environmentalists sued in U.S. District Court.

The state took another legal step Friday toward pushing the tunnels project forward by filing a “complaint for validation” in Sacramento Superior Court. That legal action paves the way for eventually borrowing the billions of dollars needed to build the tunnels. But no money will change hands until the south-of-Delta water agencies agree to participate.

Ryan Sabalow: 916-321-1264, @ryansabalow

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