OAKLAND, Calif. (AP) — Environmentalists on Thursday criticized a proposal by Gov. Jerry Brown to dramatically scale back wildlife habitat restoration involved in a massive tunnel project intended to channel fresh water around California's delta.
The revision calls for restoring 30,000 acres of wildlife habitat, down from an initial 100,000 acres.
Brown defended the revised plan, saying it would accelerate the pace of efforts to revive habitat on the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta while fixing the state's aging water infrastructure.
Kathryn Phillips, director of Sierra Club California, said the plan would shortchange the wetlands and wildlife by spending just $300 million instead of the $8 billion that was initially proposed.
"The governor and federal officials say they want to restore the delta and help recover wildlife," she said. "On the other hand, they propose dramatically reducing the restoration by 70 percent."
The Associated Press first reported details of the new plan on Wednesday. Brown held a news conference Thursday with federal officials, saying bold action is required because fish populations in the delta are at an all-time low.
"If somebody has a better alternative, certainly we'll hear it," Brown said. "This is an imperative. We must move forward."
The Bay Delta Conservation Plan has been under development for eight years and calls for building two underground tunnels, 40 feet across and 30 miles long, to send water from the Sacramento River around the delta.
The water currently irrigates 3 million acres of farmland in the Central Valley and serves 25 million people as far south as San Diego. The projected cost of the tunnels is $15 billion.
Officials say the tunnels will stabilize water supplies for cities and farms south of the delta. But it has drawn strong opposition from delta farmers and environmentalists, who contend the tunnels will allow saltwater from San Francisco Bay to degrade the delta's water quality and damage habitat for endangered salmon and tiny delta smelt.
The amount of land targeted for environmental improvements changed because there was too much complexity in the original 50-year plan, given the need for permits from federal wildlife agencies against a backdrop of uncertain future effects of climate change, said Chuck Bonham, director of California's Department of Fish and Wildlife.
The state is entering its fourth year of drought with mandatory water restrictions for residents, and many farmers are receiving little or no surface water for irrigation from government water projects.
State officials decided to split their plans for the delta into two parts — the construction of the tunnels and efforts to restore wildlife habitat along waterways.
Jonas Minton, a water policy adviser for the Planning and Conservation League, said he doubts the state will ever restore wildlife habitat on 30,000 acres. Officials have lagged on much smaller projects, he said.
"Their record does not demonstrate that they can do even that," he said.
Only about 5 percent of California's wetlands remain. Restoration projects will return at least some of the freshwater marshes and willow thickets, with trees along the water providing food and shade to young fish, Bonham said, noting the effort will mark a "decisive break from the obstacles of the past."
The new approach doesn't come with 50-year permits, which was a goal of the previous plan because that would shield Central and Southern California water agencies from future cutbacks of delta water for endangered species protection. Bonham said the state couldn't achieve the longer approvals and now is seeking permits of 10 years or less.
Bonham said the scaled-back habitat restoration is more realistic to achieve in the remaining four years of the governor's term. He said it is unclear who will be leading the effort decades from now and what impact climate change will have on California's water picture or environmental regulations.
Jay Ziegler, director of external affairs and policy at the Nature Conservancy, said 30,000 acres of habitat restoration won't rescue the delta, but he called it an aggressive first step.
"We should all look at this as a starting place for a wider science-driven restoration effort of the years to come," Ziegler said. "Whether or not the tunnels are ultimately built, we know the Delta is a crashing ecological system."
Funds for the restoration effort will come from a variety of sources, with $75 million from a water bond voters approved in November, officials said. Between $20 million and $30 million will come from cap-and-trade funds, and the rest will come through state budget allocations.
Smith reported from Fresno.