Sacramento, CA — The first in a series of federal and state rulings that will determine the fate of California’s biggest water project in decades favored by Governor Jerry Brown has weighed in favor of it.
The National Marine Fisheries Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have issued statements saying the estimated ten-year, $16 billion twin 35-mile tunnel project on the Sacramento River is not likely to jeopardize the continued existence of more than a dozen federally protected species in what is the West Coast’s largest fresh-water estuary; nor destroy or adversely modify critical habitat.
Project opponents have opined that plans for channeling part of the river into two four-story-high tunnels running below its delta with the San Joaquin River would speed the demise of some salmon species and other already struggling native wildlife.
Tunnels Seen As Less Invasive
Brown and other proponents say it would ensure a reliable water supply for cities, farms and tens of millions of residents, most of them in Southern and central California. Earlier this month, the governor told reporters the tunnels would allow the state to reduce its dependence on the giant mechanical pumps that currently draw water from the delta for the 25 million Californians who get some or all of their water from the state’s giant north-south water projects. The pumps are seen as more invasive to native fish because their operation makes the delta warmer, narrower and shallower.
“There’s so many dams and channels and bypasses I don’t know if people are aware of how engineered our water system is,” Brown shared, emphasizing that that the delta was no longer providing a wild habitat of “some mythical golden past.” Brown’s father, the late Governor Pat Brown, oversaw construction of the state’s complex and aging water system. The governor himself has pushed for other engineering updates such as canals since the 1980s when he first took office.
In addition to the wildlife agencies approval, larger infrastructure projects and those that supply California farmers with water have apparent support by President Donald Trump. In turn politically powerful water districts like Southern California’s Metropolitan Water District are stepping up to insist on taking bigger roles in financing, designing and constructing the tunnels, which supporters say would speed building along. Opponents fear the shift might cause corner-cutting on safety and environmental measures — and might also cause districts to extract and sell more of the water at higher rates to pay off the huge project costs.