SACRAMENTO (AP) — California water officials on Monday released a draft of a $24.7 billion plan to restore the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, in part by building two 30-mile underground tunnels to ensure stable water delivery to millions of Californians.
The joint federal and state Bay Delta Conservation Plan, or BDCP, and environmental impact analysis comes after seven years of study, and includes plans for building the tunnels and completing significant habitat restoration work to improve the delivery of mountain snowmelt to Central Valley farms and cities throughout the state.
At the heart of the 50-year plan unveiled last summer by Gov. Jerry Brown are the twin tunnels with a 9,000-cubic-feet-per-second capacity that would replace the delta's current pumping system that endangers fish and other wildlife.
Currently, the State Water Project and Central Valley Project pump water from the delta to 25 million people and three million acres of farmland.
But that supply has been interrupted in recent years, as salmon and smelt numbers declined in delta rivers, and federal regulators limited the amount of water that could be pumped from the delta.
Water officials believe creating an alternative delivery method from the pumps — and restoring more than 100,000 acres of new habitat above ground — will help the fish rebound and keep the water flowing to customers.
The plan also outlines how officials would conduct research and implement monitoring during and after construction of the tunnels to study the project's effect on dozens of plant and animal species.
State water officials also say the ambitious project would generate billions of dollars in jobs, especially in construction, in the delta region.
The release kicks off 120 days of public comment on the plan and environmental analysis.
"By meeting the state's dual goals ... of ecosystem restoration and water supply reliability, we will stabilize and secure against catastrophe the water deliveries that sustain our homes, jobs, and farms, and do so in a way that not only protects but enhances the environment," said John Laird, California's natural resources secretary.
Funding for the roughly $16 billion tunnel part of the project will come from the water agencies that would benefit most from it, according to the state Department of Water Resources. Those same agencies would pay for maintenance and operation of the tunnel.
A mixture of federal and state money would cover the remainder, including the possibility of general obligation bonds.
But critics of the plan say it would actually harm fish and agriculture by siphoning off more water from the estuary.
Dozens of conservation groups including the Sierra Club have been steadfast in their opposition, saying the project would ship more water from the delta south and create more environmental problems.
Conservationists say modern developments in water conservation and recycling can be used to reduce demand from southern California, and would be far more environmentally friendly than the tunnel project.
"We need a better plan for restoring the delta environment and making sure Californians all over the state get the water they need," Kathryn Phillips, director of Sierra Club California, said in a statement.
Jay Lund, director of University of California, Davis' Center for Watershed Sciences, said the goal of the project is not to increase the amount of water being sent to thirsty cities and Central Valley farms, but to make the conveyance less environmentally damaging. Lund is one of the scientists reviewing the government's plan.
"This is really not about taking additional water from other water users ... it's just shifting the place of diversion," Lund said. "You can never have no impact when doing (something like this), but you're changing the impacts and transforming them for something that's less bad for the native fish."
And some other environmental groups are supporting the effort, saying major changes are needed to help restore the badly damaged delta ecosystem.
The groups, including the Natural Resources Defense Council and Nature Conservancy, stopped short of giving formal approval of the draft plan, saying they are reviewing the some 34,000 pages to see if previous concerns they raised were addressed.
"With California facing a possible third consecutive dry year and with poor environmental conditions in the Bay Delta, it is imperative that California makes significant progress on a comprehensive ecosystem and water supply solution," the coalition wrote in a joint statement.