OAKLAND (CN) – Gov. Jerry Brown and federal officials announced Thursday they are scaling back wildlife restoration in an effort to speed up and save money on a controversial $25 billion water project.
Brown said changes are being made to the Bay Delta Conservation Plan that will scale back the original wildlife restoration estimate of 100,000 acres to just 30,000, in order to accelerate the plan to build two massive tunnels underneath the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta that will transport water to Southern California.
“We can’t just cross our fingers, hoping for the best in the Delta,” said Brown in a statement. “Fish populations are at an all-time low. Bold action is imperative. We’ve listened to the public and carefully studied the science. This revised plan is the absolute best path forward.”
The revised plan reveals the state’s urgency to begin the project – hotly contested by farmers and environmentalists – and allows California to obtain federal permits it couldn’t under the original plan. State officials struggled to get around a federal 50-year permit with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and prove it wouldn’t harm endangered species in the Delta.
Opponents lambasted Brown’s announcement, from environmental groups to fellow state Democrats.
“You cannot have successful habitat or restore fisheries while draining the Delta of its water,” said Restore the Delta executive director Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla in a prepared statement. “It’s time for Gov. Brown to drop the 19th century tunnels plan, and embrace water technologies that will serve the world we live in now.”
“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,” said Sen. Lois Wolk, D-Davis, in a statement.
The underwater tunnel plan was released in 2013 as part of the Bay Delta Conservation Plan, and calls for twin 30-mile tunnels to run south from Sacramento to Tracy. Officials say the project will improve water deliveries south and improve Delta water salinity by reducing salt water overflows, which happen naturally in the tidewater estuary.
Funding for Thursday’s announcement will come from a water bond passed by voters in November and is estimated to cost $300 million, a figurative drop in the bucket compared to the estimated $15 billion it will cost to build the tunnels.
The controversial tunnel plan has stalled due to criticism and public comments over the plan’s environmental impact report. The California Department of Water Resources announced last summer that the plan was delayed and needed more work, and says it is still reviewing over 30,000 total comments.
Last month, the environmental group Friends of the River accused officials of covering up public comments regarding the conservation plan.
“Thousands of comments from individuals have also been suppressed by the Brown administration,” said Friends of the River senior counsel Bob Wright. “Since the conservation plan agencies are not airing both sides of the issues-in the traditional American way-Friends of the River is now doing the government’s job of informing, as opposed to propagandizing, the public.”
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