Feds Fast-Track Review of California’s Delta Tunnels Plan

(CN) – In a move to address California’s persistent drought, the Obama administration has directed officials to quickly finish environmental reviews on California’s contentious delta tunnels project, a $15.7 billion proposed makeover of the largest estuary on the West Coast.

U.S. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell issued a secretarial order Wednesday directing various federal agencies to finish their initial environmental review of Gov. Jerry Brown’s plan to build twin tunnels under the state’s vital Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta.

Planners say the tunnels will protect California’s aging water infrastructure from earthquakes and deliver water to farmers and Southern California more efficiently.

However, the plan has been bitterly opposed by environmentalists who claim the massive public works project will devastate already struggling salmon populations and other endangered fish species. Juvenile salmon populations have shrunk to record-low levels over the last several years due to poor water conditions caused by drought and over-pumping of the delta.

The order tasks the Interior Department and the Bureau of Reclamation with analyzing California’s biological assessment of the tunnels plan and submitting a preliminary opinion before President Barack Obama leaves office on Jan. 20. The final biological opinion would presumably be issued in April, giving the Donald Trump administration the final say on the controversial water delivery plan.

Brown, who calls the tunnels plan one of his “legacy projects,” applauded the order. State officials submitted a 90,000-page environmental blueprint to federal officials in December, with Brown claiming the project has gone through more scientific review than “any other project in the history of the world.”

“This state-federal partnership is what’s needed to improve water reliability for residents and farmers and protect vulnerable ecosystems,” Brown said in a statement.

Critics claim that the project, which will barrel under the delta and divert water from the estuary through twin 30-mile tunnels, will violate the Endangered Species Act in favor of farmers and thirsty Southern Californian cities.

Restore the Delta, a group committed to stopping Brown’s current version of the project, said the federal order doesn’t appear to change the tunnels plan’s timeline and called Brown “desperate.”

“Secretary Jewell’s action plan really does not change much for us in terms of the timeline. We understood that the final biological opinion would be out in the late spring. Gov. Brown’s comment, however, seems a bit desperate, as if he is trying to push the tunnels through as a completed project before President-elect Trump is in charge,” the group’s executive director Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla said in a statement.

California officials hope to start construction on the project in 2018, assuming the federal agencies agree the plan doesn’t violate the Endangered Species Act and that it’s quickly approved by Trump. Planners also claim the tunnels plan could create over 118,000 construction jobs in Northern California.

Jewell’s order also directs the Bureau of Reclamation to provide up to an additional 250,000 acre-feet per year in delta flows to help the tiny delta smelt. The bureau manages several of the dams that make up California’s extensive water delivery system, including its largest Shasta Dam on the Sacramento River.

Scientists view the smelt as an important indicator of the health of the delta’s ecosystem, and the fish has all but disappeared from the estuary over the last decade. The additional water will come from upstream releases or other water transfers paid for by the bureau.