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Federal Fisheries Sign Off on Calif. Delta Tunnels Project

In a win for a monumental water plan that would re-plumb the largest estuary on the West Coast, federal fisheries officials on Monday approved California’s decades-old delta tunnels project.

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) –In a win for a monumental water plan that would re-plumb the largest estuary on the West Coast, federal fisheries officials on Monday approved California’s decades-old delta tunnels project.

The officials based their approval on a 1267-page biological opinion for the project prepared by Californian and federal officials.

In a decision watched closely by proponent Gov. Jerry Brown and opposing environmental groups, federal regulators agreed that the $15.7-billion proposed makeover of the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta could be completed without devastating impacts to native salmon and other endangered fish species.

“Our staff have worked diligently with our partners to make certain, through a robust scientific and technical analysis, that this project conserves listed species,” said Barry Thom, National Marine Fisheries Service regional administrator, in a statement. "We will continue to work together to monitor the project's progress and implement adaptive management measures when necessary."

Known as the “California WaterFix,” the divisive infrastructure project would divert water around the delta through twin 35-mile tunnels in hopes of improving California’s water supply network.  Supporters say the project protects the Golden State’s aging aqueducts and canals from earthquakes and will deliver water to millions of Southern California residents in a more efficient manner.

After nine years of research and debate, state officials signed off on the project in December. Brown claims the plan has been subjected to more environmental review than “any other project in the world” and is critical to California’s future water supply.

Yet environmentalists who claim the massive public works project will devastate already struggling salmon populations and other endangered fish species oppose the plan. 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 the delta. They argue that the tunnels, California’s largest water project since the 1960s, will violate the Endangered Species Act and destroy the delta’s fragile ecosystem by depriving it of freshwater flows.

“The science in this decision was cherry-picked and not representative of the true scope of harm to endangered species who depend on a healthy San Francisco Bay Delta estuary for their survival,” tunnels critic Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla, executive director of Restore the Delta, said in a statement. "We are pursuing legal remedies with our coalition.”

State officials estimate the tunnels could take more than 10 years to dig. Proponents hope construction will begin in 2018 despite the legal challenges promised by critics.

The project still has both state and federal regulatory hurdles to clear. The California State Water Resources Control Board is currently holding public hearings on the project’s potential impact on water users and the Bureau of Reclamation must still sign off on it.

David Murillo of the Bureau of Reclamation said financial questions remain and that researchers need time to analyze the lengthy biological opinions. He added that a final decision on the project could be months away and would likely come after the state water board makes its decision.

The ambitious plumbing project would be funded largely by private water suppliers, such as the Southern California-based Metropolitan Water District. The district and the state’s other powerful water agencies say they will vote on whether to continue financing the plan in September.

Meanwhile, state officials applauded the federal regulators’ green light and called the opinions a major milestone.

“We feel this is a momentous step toward the future and we feel that this will help in the future in balancing between water and environmental resources in California,” said Michelle Banonis of the California Department of Water Resources in a media call.

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