By Jim Christie
SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - California Governor Jerry Brown and U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar on Wednesday unveiled a multibillion-dollar plan for two giant tunnels that would dramatically reconfigure the state's water delivery system.
The nearly $24 billion project aims to help restore the habitat of the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta and improve the reliability of water supplies to the arid central and southern parts of the state.
The state already has two massive aqueducts that move water from the north to the south, but the way in which the water is transferred has severely damaged fish populations and degraded their habitat in the delta.
The planned project is similar to one Brown approved three decades ago when he was first governor. Voters rejected that project amid vociferous opposition from northern California residents. A similar political battle will be fought this time around.
"It's a long time in coming," the 74-year-old Democrat said, asserting that the project balances regional, environmental and agricultural concerns that have long blocked efforts to expand the state's water infrastructure.
The twin 35-mile tunnels would divert water from the Sacramento River just south of the state capital of Sacramento to the aqueduct system. The tunnels would bypass the delta rather than drawing water directly from it, reducing the number of fish killed by pumps and restoring natural water flows.
The tunnels would reduce the risk of environmental lawsuits that could interrupt water supplies, a critical concern for California's multibillion-dollar farming industry.
An estimated 25 million Californians who would rely on water from the tunnels would repay the bonds issued to finance them.
The cost of the tunnels is pegged at $14 billion. The additional $10 billion in costs includes debt service payments and 40 years of expenses for its operation, said Richard Stapler, a spokesman for the state resources agency.
Additional money for habitat restoration in the delta could come from an $11 billion water bond that lawmakers recently deferred until 2014, Stapler said.
Critics called the tunnels an expensive boondoggle and said there are cheaper conservation measures for the delta.
Kate Poole, a senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council, said the plan for the tunnels is "putting plumbing before sensible policy."
"Twenty-first century technology opens up new sources of water, including water conservation and efficiency, recycling and other tools to allow us to reduce our reliance on the delta, allow fish to recover, farmers to farm and people to turn on the tap and rely on good quality water," Poole said.
(Reporting By Jim Christie; Editing by Jonathan Weber and Stacey Joyce)