Two US wildlife agencies have given their environmental stamp of approval to the nearly $16 billion plan to build two 35-mile-long tunnels in the West Coast's largest estuary.
The National Marine Fisheries Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service released environmental documents that show the project likely will not jeopardize endangered fish and wildlife.
An earlier environmental review raised concerns. Since then, state and federal officials have made changes designed to help threatened species like the Delta smelt and Chinook salmon.
“They have agreed to restore about 1,800 acres of habitat in the Delta that we believe is going to be extraordinarily important for Delta smelt and other fisheries as well as wildlife," says Paul Souza with US Fish and Wildlife Service.
Supporters of the project say the current water pumping stations in the South Delta are killing fish and not providing a reliable water supply to Central Valley farmers and millions of Southern California residents. The pumping facilities, near Tracy, can reverse the estuary's flow and cause migrating fish to stray off course. The tunnel project would instead pull water from the Sacramento River in the north Delta near Courtland and carry it south.
“This is another milestone, a significant milestone. It really was the last major pre-requisite to completing the environmental review process,” says Jeff Kightlinger with the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, which supports the project.
Opponents of the project, including many Delta residents, farmers and environmental groups, were quick to denounce the determination.
“Of course we’re disappointed, but we knew that the process was going to come to a head, and we’re going to organize ourselves and we will take this up in court,” says Barbara Barrigan-Parilla with Restore the Delta.