Gov. Jerry Brown won crucial early approval from federal wildlife officials Monday for his $16 billion proposal to re-engineer California's north-south water system, advancing his plan to build two giant tunnels to carry Northern California water to the south even though much about the project remains undetermined.
The National Marine Fisheries Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service gave their green light by finding that the project would not mean extinction for endangered and threatened native species of salmon and other fish.
The project, which would tap part of the flow of California's largest river, the Sacramento, would change the way the Bay Area, the farm-rich Central Valley and populous Southern California get their water from what is the West Coast's largest estuary.
The twin tunnels, both four stories high and 35 miles long, would be California's most ambitious water project since the 1950s and 1960s. Then, Brown's father, the late Gov. Pat Brown, helped oversee building of the pumps, dams and aqueducts that move water from the green north to more arid south. Supporters say the tunnels are needed to modernize and secure water deliveries from the delta of the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers, now done by aging pumps that pull the rivers and the fish in them off-course.
Brown did not comment Monday, though his resources secretary cheered the ruling.
Jeffrey Kightlinger, general manager of Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, the massive Los Angeles-area water agency that is one of the project's biggest proponents, called Monday's decision a milestone.
"For too long California's water supplies have been at risk and subject to cutbacks," Kightlinger said.
Brown has pushed to get regulatory approval and financing squared away for the tunnels before he leaves office next year.
Opponents say they fear water extractions through the tunnels could doom towns and farms in California's historic Delta and more than a dozen dwindling native species that depend on the waterway.
They accused federal wildlife and fisheries agencies of clearing the project while key details of how it would operate aren't yet determined, including how much water the tunnels could take from the Sacramento.
Local water districts, spread among the Bay Area, Central Valley and Southern California, would pay for the project. They have yet to decide which of them would sign on for the tunnels and how they would pay for them.
"They're asking people to commit to pay for a project that they won't know for years in the future how it will be operated and how much water can go through it," said Bill Jennings of the California Sportsfishing Protection Alliance. "It was breathtaking in its audacity."
State officials disclosed Monday they had agreed to dedicate 1,800 acres near the pumps as habitat for Delta smelt, a once thriving, now nearly extinct native fish that would be harmed most directly by the tunnels.
With so much yet to be determined about the project, the state would rely on monitoring any problems from digging and running the tunnels, and "adjust operations accordingly," said Bill Croyle, acting director of the state's Department of Water Resources, the agency spearheading the project.
Monday's decision moves Brown's project ahead to a decision by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which oversees many of the country's big water projects. David Murillo, the bureau's regional director, indicated to reporters Monday that decision was months or more away.
Among the issues Murillo said had yet to be resolved: concerns voiced earlier this month from a large group of Northern and Central California water agencies that wouldn't get water from the tunnels and don't want any part of the project.
The group of water agencies in the Central Valley Project, the state's largest water supplier, asked the Bureau of Reclamation earlier this month to delay its own ruling on the project until the water agencies are assured it won't cost them money or cut their own water supplies, according to a letter obtained by The Associated Press.
The federal bureau also wants to get a better idea before it rules of how much water the tunnels will be allowed to take from the Sacramento River, Murillo said. That ruling is expected from another state water board this fall.