SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — After Gov. Jerry Brown won crucial early approval from federal wildlife officials for his $16 billion proposal to re-engineer California's north-south water system, another federal agency indicated that it may be months or more away from ruling on his plan.
Brown wants to redesign California's water system by shunting part of the largest river, the Sacramento, into four-story-high pipes. Supporters say the project would mean more reliable water for millions in the San Francisco Bay Area and Central and Southern California. Opponents say the project would devastate California's historic Delta towns and native species.
On Monday, 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 would change the way the San Francisco Bay Area, the farm-rich Central Valley and populous Southern California get their water from what is the West Coast's largest estuary.
But after the agencies' announcement, Bureau of Reclamation regional director David Murillo said his agency will make its ruling only after California decides key details, including how much water the tunnels could take.
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. No date is set for that ruling, which will come from a California state water board, but it also is likely many months away, officials said.
The twin tunnels, both four stories high and 35 miles (55 kilometers) 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 dozens of 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."