California’s giant water tunnels win crucial approval

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — U.S. wildlife officials gave crucial first approval Monday to California Gov. Jerry Brown’s decades-old ambitions to build two massive tunnels that would re-engineer the water system in the nation’s most populous state.

The National Marine Fisheries Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said the $16 billion project likely will not endanger more than a dozen federally listed species in the largest fresh-water estuary on the West Coast.

The project “is not likely to jeopardize the continued existence of any of these species, and is not likely to destroy or adversely modify designated critical habitat,” Paul Souza, a regional director of the wildlife service, said in a letter.

The decision is the first in a series of federal and state rulings that will determine the fate of the proposed twin 35-mile (55-kilometer) tunnels, California’s biggest water project in decades that is expected to take more than 10 years to complete.

The project would suck part of the Sacramento River into two four-story-high tunnels running below the river’s delta with the San Joaquin River.

Supporters say it would ensure a reliable water supply for cities, farms and tens of millions of residents, most of them in Southern and central California.

Opponents say the project would speed the demise of some species of salmon and other native wildlife, already struggling after decades of heavy state reliance on water from the delta.

The U.S. agencies had earlier acknowledged that the tunnels would further harm California’s Delta smelt — a once abundant fish species that’s now nearly extinct — and winter-run Chinook salmon, another endangered native fish.

Earlier this month, a group of water agencies in the Central Valley Project, the state’s largest water supplier, asked the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation to delay its own ruling on the project until the water agencies get assurances that project won’t cost them money or cut their own water supplies, in a letter obtained by The Associated Press. The bureau, whose approval is critical to the project, has not publicly responded.

The project’s chances of federal approval may have received a boost from the election of President Donald Trump, who has said he backs big infrastructure projects and more water for central California farmers.

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