By David Siders and Phillip Reese
May 1, 2015
For years, Gov. Jerry Brown used the promise of habitat restoration to broaden the appeal of his plan to build two tunnels to divert water around the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to the south.
Designating the project as a habitat conservation plan – and securing a 50-year permit for the effort – not only gave water users paying for the project an assurance water deliveries could not easily be changed, but also cast the project as more than a standalone conveyance.
The $25 billion project, Brown said in his State of the State address in 2013, was “designed to improve the ecology of the Delta, with almost 100 square miles of habitat restoration.”
Brown’s announcement Thursday that he was dramatically reducing the habitat portion of the plan is expected to make permitting the project easier. But it also burdens the project with new political difficulties. Ecosystem restoration has long been part of efforts to bridge the fractured interests of farmers, environmentalists, Delta landowners and Southern California’s population centers, and reducing its emphasis has invigorated opponents of the effort.
Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla, executive director of Restore the Delta, a group opposed to the project, said in a prepared statement that the project “has now shifted from a proposal to protect 56 species, and over 100,000 acres of habitat, to a straight water grab” from the Delta.
Sen. Lois Wolk, D-Davis, said Brown needs to forget the tunnels and move on. “Today’s announcement confirms what I feared in 2009,” she said in a prepared statement. “The commitment to co-equal goals in the Delta has been broken. The tunnels will move forward, and the commitment to the health of the Delta has been reduced in large part, and relegated to a separate track.”
The new plan reduces to about 30,000 acres of restoration an initial effort to restore 100,000 acres of wetland and wildlife habitat. The projected cost is about $300 million, a tiny fraction of the $8 billion originally planned.
The change comes after federal agencies balked at a 50-year permit, with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency saying last year that the project could violate the federal Clean Water Act and harm endangered fish.
Brown said Thursday that the original restoration plan was only an “idea.” He said the state did not have the money to restore 100,000 acres, but that with money from a voter-approved water bond and other sources, restoring 30,000 acres can be done.
“This is a step forward because it’s a concrete action,” he told reporters in Oakland. “It’s real. It’s happening in the real world. The other was more, it was a desire.”
The project calls for the construction of two tunnels, 40 feet in diameter and 30 miles long, to draw water from the Sacramento River to state and federal diversion canals near Tracy. It would dramatically re-engineer water deliveries from the Delta, a source of fresh water for 25 million Californians and 3 million acres of farmland.
State and federal officials say the project is necessary to stabilize water deliveries throughout the state and to help restore the Delta ecosystem.
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