- Associated Press - Monday, July 13, 2015

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) - The latest version of Gov. Jerry Brown’s plan to build two giant tunnels ferrying water across California locks in just 15,600 acres for habitat restoration, one-sixth of that committed under Brown’s original tunnels proposal, state officials confirmed Monday.

Spokeswoman Nancy Vogel of the Natural Resources Agency said Monday that the state’s original pledge to restore 100,000 acres for native fish and other wildlife, at $8 billion, is no longer warranted because the state is no longer pursuing a sweeping, 50-year environmental permit for Brown’s tunnels project.

Brown is seeking to build twin tunnels to carry water from the delta of the San Joaquin and Sacramento rivers to supply what the state says are 25 million residents and 3 million acres of farmland in Central and Southern California. Last week, his administration released a revised proposal with a less ambitious plan to restore habitat, after federal officials balked at the original 50-year environmental permit sought.

The cost of the 50-year environmental mitigation effort, with its 100,000 acres of habitat restoration, also threatened to raise the cost of the project “beyond affordable levels” for the water districts that are slated to pay for much of the tunnels, Mark Cowin, head of the state Department of Water Resources, told reporters.

State and federal officials said Monday that the current, aging system of canals and other conduits ferrying water south from the Delta is broken, and that wildlife will benefit from modernizing it. Environmental groups and others blame the current state and federal water projects, drought, and other factors for endangering several species of native fish. One, the Delta smelt, turned up in so few numbers in a June state survey that the state Fish and Wildlife Department rated its relative abundance in the wild at 0.0, the lowest rating for the smelt ever.

“We feel we would be remiss if we didn’t try to fix the system,” Cowin said.

The revised plan commits to 15,600 acres of habitat restoration to offset any environmental harm from construction of the tunnels. State officials now are waiting for a verdict on the revised tunnels plan from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and other agencies.

At the same time, the state announced in April that it was dropping the proposal to rehabilitate 100,000 acres in habitat as part of the tunnels plan, Brown announced what state officials called EcoRestore - a project to restore 30,000 acres of habitat.

Of that 30,000, however, 25,000 acres were already committed to by state and federal officials in 2008 and 2009 agreements, Vogel said Monday. While the 15,600 acres of restoration would be locked in under the tunnels project, if that wins approval, the 30,000 acres of restoration “is what the Governor set as a goal for delta habitat restoration. Separate and apart from a delta water conveyance system.”

The state’s part of that 30,000 acres “is overseeing that…the overall effort, and making sure it actually gets done,” Vogel said.

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