SACRAMENTO (AP) — Representatives of California Gov. Jerry Brown and the Obama administration began making their pitch for approval Tuesday to build a pair of massive water tunnels under the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta.
They propose building the tunnels — each four stories high and running 35 miles long — to send Sacramento River water south to millions of residents and vast farmland in dry regions of the state. The project is estimated to cost of $15.7 billion.
Backers face opposition, however, from delta-area communities and farmers, who fear it will further degrade the hub of California’s water system without producing more water for the drought-parched state.
State and federal officials told regulators at the opening of the hearing in Sacramento that the tunnels would correct design flaws in the water system that have led to the decline of the tiny Delta smelt and Chinook salmon populations and unreliable water deliveries.
California’s water challenges are a top priority to the Obama administration, said Letty Belin, senior counselor to the deputy secretary at the U.S. Department of the Interior.
“Now is the time to act,” she said. “The cost of doing nothing is too great.”
To move forward, state and federal officials need approval of the State Water Resources Control Board to take water from the Sacramento River. Officials most prove that drawing water from the Sacramento River won’t harm others.
Hearings on the project opened Tuesday and are expected to last months. A second hearing will follow, addressing the project’s impact to wildlife and the environment.
Opponents such as state Sen. Cathleen Galgiani, a Democrat from Stockton representing delta residents, said the tunnels will siphon river water needed to dilute pollution in the delta.
She also fears that the project will end up costing taxpayers, despite current plans to make water agencies pay for it. “The proposed tunnels lacks comprehensive finance plan, and it’s a financial risk that California is not prepared to take,” Galgiani said.
The delta is fed by two of two big rivers that start high in the northern California mountains. It is the heart of the state’s water system, providing water to two-thirds of the state’s residents, 3 million acres of farmland, and wildlife.
State and federal officials in the 1960s re-engineered the delta to pump water from the southern end of the delta to farms and communities as distant as San Diego. The pumps, however, altered the delta’s flow, pulling migrating fish off course.
John Laird, secretary of California’s Natural Resources Agency, told regulators that the tunnels would correct the delta flows while also protecting the state’s water system from an inevitable major earthquake and sea-level rise driven by climate change.
“The existing infrastructure does not work well,” Laird said. “We have debated, litigated and legislated, but our ecosystem and supply problems have only worsened in the last three decades.”