California Governor Jerry Brown’s administration has released a 97,000 page environmental document on a plan to re-engineer the state’s water delivery system.
Brown says the project is "essential" in maintaining a reliable water supply. The $15.5 billion twin tunnel project would carry water from Northern California’s Sacramento River to Central and Southern California.
Governor Brown said in a statement that the WaterFix project has been analyzed for 10 years and undergone "more environmental review than any other project in the history of the world."
“We looked at hundreds of alternatives and whittled it down to 18 that we analyzed in great detail in this document that was posted today," says Erin Mellon with the California Natural Resources Agency. "It’s clear that WaterFix is the solution that we need to achieve those two goals of resilient water supply and habitat restoration.”
Mellon says if the administration does nothing, the health and abundance of threatened fish and wildlife species in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta will continue to decline.
But a prominent non-partisan think tank has called for a scaled-down version of the project. Building new infrastructure benefits both water supply and the environment, says Ellen Hanak with the Public Policy Institute of California. But she says building one tunnel instead of two might be a good compromise, given the opposition to building two. The original environmental documents never looked at that option, but did look at building two smaller tunnels.
“It’s not starting from scratch," says Hanak. "That’s one of the beauties of it is that a lot of the work has already been done, including in this new EIR/EIS, so we think the compromise proposal could move through pretty quickly.”
The Brown administration has argued that costs aren’t greatly reduced with just one tunnel.
The final environmental documents don't make major changes to the project, but respond to thousands of public comments. The administration contends that the project will have little to no impact on threatened fish species. Opponents, including residents in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, disagree.
With the documents finalized, the state is hoping to have federal permits approved next year. Mellon says she thinks construction could begin as early as 2018.