FRESNO, Calif. (AP) — Gov. Jerry Brown's ambitious plans to build two massive tunnels, reengineering the hub of California's water system, would destroy native fish species already on the brink of extinction, lawsuits filed Thursday said.
The $16 billion proposed tunnels along the state's largest river won a critical first round of approval from two federal agencies early this week, but days later a group of fish and conservation groups filed federal lawsuits attempting to stop the project.
"Politics has trumped science once again," Doug Obegi, a senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council. "The agencies tasked with protecting our natural resources are making things worse."
The proposed twin tunnels, both four stories high and 35 miles (55 kilometer) long, would be California's most ambitious water project in decades.
State officials say the tunnels are needed to reengineer the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, the largest estuary on the West Coast, which provides water to much of the nation's most populous state.
The Sacramento and San Joaquin — two of California's largest rivers — send mountain snowmelt into the delta and then out to sea through the San Francisco Bay.
Water is currently pumped from the delta and sent south through hundreds of miles of canals to farms in the vast San Joaquin Valley and communities as far south as San Diego.
Supporters say the tunnels will modernize and secure water deliveries from the delta, now done by aging pumps that pull the rivers and the fish in them off-course.
The project won a first critical round of approval Monday from National Marine Fisheries Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. They ruled that the project would not lead to the extinction of endangered and threatened native species, including some salmon species and the Delta smelt.
State officials say they have added thousands of acres of habitat restoration, boosting chances that the imperiled fish species will survive. The plan doesn't convince the fish and conservation groups filing lawsuits.
"This version of the tunnels will wipe out California's salmon fishery and the families and communities that rely on salmon," said John McManus, executive director of the Golden Gate Salmon Association.
He's joined in the two lawsuits by the Natural Resources Defense Council, Defenders of Wildlife and the Bay Institute.
Before construction can begin, the project requires approval from other state and federal agencies. Local districts that serve farms and communities have yet to confirm their commitment to paying for the tunnels.
Nancy Vogel of the California Natural Resources Agency declined to comment.
This story has been corrected to fix the spelling of Doug Obegi's name.