U.S. wildlife officials have given crucial first approval Monday to California Gov. Jerry Brown’s decades-old ambitions to build two massive tunnels that would re-engineer the water system in the nation’s most populous state, The Washington Post and other media outlets have reported.
The National Marine Fisheries Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said the $16 billion California WaterFix project likely will not endanger more than a dozen federally protected species in the largest freshwater estuary on the West Coast.
The project “is not likely to jeopardize the continued existence of any of these species, and is not likely to destroy or adversely modify designated critical habitat,” Paul Souza, a regional director of the wildlife service, said in a letter.
However, the decision is just the first in a series of federal and state rulings to determine the fate of the twin 35-mile tunnels, California’s biggest water project in decades that is expected to take more than 10 years to complete.
As designed, the project would suck part of the Sacramento River into two four-story-high tunnels running below the river’s delta with the San Joaquin River.
Jeffrey Kightlinger, general manager of Metropolitan Water District of Southern California said the June 26 decision is important milestone.
“For too long California’s water supplies have been at risk and subject to cutbacks,” he said.
However, there are significant hurdles to overcome and there is significant opposition to the project.
For example, water agencies in the Central Valley Project, the state’s largest water supplier, asked the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation earlier this month to delay its own ruling on the project until the water agencies get assurances it won’t cost them money or cut their own water supplies. The agency has not publicly responded.
The project’s chances of federal approval may have received a boost from the election of President Trump, who has said he backs big infrastructure projects and more water for central California farmers, the published reports say.
Meanwhile, several regional public water agencies that would get water from the tunnels also must decide whether they will commit to paying for the project. Southern California’s giant Metropolitan Water District leads the push and is expected to decide by early fall.
Three officials involved in the project have told the Associated Press that the politically powerful water districts are now demanding to have a bigger direct role in financing, designing and construction of the tunnels. Proponents say that would speed the tunnels’ construction.
Opponents fear the shift could lead water districts to cut corners on safety and environmental measures, as well as compel water districts to extract and sell more water at a higher rate to pay off the huge cost of the tunnel.