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Gov Proposes Huge Underground Tunnels to Move Water North to South in California

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Governor Jerry Brown and Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar yesterday announced details of an expensive plan to ensure the future of Southern California's water supply (specifically, the supply shipped from Northern California). The most expensive part of the new plan would build the long-debated "peripheral canal," described by the San Jose Mercury News: "two huge, side-by-side underground tunnels, each 33 feet in diameter." The tunnels would "carry fresh water 37 miles from the state's largest river, the Sacramento, under the delta to giant federal and state pumps at Tracy ... There it would flow into canals run by the State Water Project and the Central Valley Project, which deliver Delta water to 25 million Californians, from the Bay Area to San Diego, and to irrigate 3 million acres of farmland." The price for the plan? A whopping $23.7 billion. If you're an Angeleno and you're wondering why a tunnel built in Northern California is such a big deal, here's what you need to know: the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power buys more than half of its water from the Metropolitan Water District. The Bay Delta, where the canal will be built, is where MWD gets its water (in addition to the Colorado River).

The peripheral canal has been a hot button political item since a 1982 ballot initiative that would have allowed the concept failed to win the approval of voters. More recent efforts to solve the ongoing ecological and health crisis that is the Bay Delta produced the 2010 Bay Delta Conservation Plan. Yesterday's announcement essentially makes way for the state to revise the BDCP.

Many of recommendations on the table would require the funding of an $11 billion water bond that has been drafted for the ballot, only to be pulled off at the last minute for fear that it wouldn't pass in the current political climate (Brown most recently pulled the water bond from the ballot earlier this month). But water districts around the state have pledged to help fund the canal, which would cost substantially more that the water bond would generate: "Half a dozen large water districts, including Metropolitan, Westlands, Santa Clara, the Kern County Water Agency, the Alameda County Water District and the Zone 7 Water Agency in Alameda County have said they will pay the $14 billion tab to build the tunnels." The state's largest water districts have already paid $150 million for studies.

Much of the new plan focuses on habitat preservation for a small species of fish known as the Delta smelt. Water allotments from the Bay Delta have been shrinking for years because the dwindling numbers of Delta smelt have triggered provisions in the Endangered Species Act. Numbers for the Delta smelt, which is at the base of a food chain that goes up to much larger fish, such as Chinook salmon, began dwindling in 2001 and reached a nadir in 2009, before making a slight resurgence in 2011. The new plan will have everything to do with the fish, according to Karla Nemeth, program manager for the plan at the California Natural Resources Agency: "Ultimately what passes muster is what will work for the fish."

The Associated Press, which first caught wind of news of the announcement last week, reports that the new plan has already provoked a letter of opposition from 11 members of Congress. The letter asks Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and Governor Brown "to conduct a statewide analysis before proceeding with the plan." The letter also "questioned the thoroughness of a report done for the state that found the project's benefits outweigh the costs."
· Governor Brown and Obama Administration Outline Path Forward for BDCP [Bay Delta Conservation Plan]
· California's next North-vs.-South battle over water begins Wednesday [San Jose Mercury News]
· Calif., federal officials to reveal water plans [AP]