Feds say California's Delta twin tunnel project may violate clean water laws, harm fish

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FRESNO, California — A pair of giant water diversion tunnels proposed for the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta could violate the federal Clean Water Act and increase harm to endangered fish species, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which released its formal comment on the project Thursday.

In a 43-page letter sent to the National Marine Fisheries Service, the EPA said its research found that by diverting freshwater from three new intakes proposed on the Sacramento River, the project is likely to increase concentrations of salinity, mercury, bromide, chloride, selenium and pesticides in the Delta. The estuary is habitat for species such as the endangered Delta smelt.

Richard Stapler, a spokesman for the state's Natural Resources Agency, which backs the Delta plan, said the state is addressing the EPA's concerns.

"This is a pretty sprawling effort and probably shouldn't come as a huge surprise that additional refinements need to be made," Stapler said Friday.

While the state's Bay Delta Conservation Plan would improve water quality for farmers and cities receiving Delta supplies in southern parts of the state, the EPA's regional administrator, Jared Blumenfeld, wrote that federal officials fear more immediate harm.

"Water quality could worsen for farmers and municipalities who divert water directly from the Delta," said Blumenfeld, recommending that the state explain in greater detail how it plans to offset harmful impacts, including those as far downstream as the San Francisco Bay.

Under development for seven years, the $25 billion project proposes to re-engineer the Delta in what would be the biggest water supply project in California for decades. It includes two underground tunnels, 40 feet in diameter and 30 miles long, which send water around the Delta. The plan also calls for creating habitat for fish and other wildlife.

Supporters say the project is aimed at stabilizing natural water flows and easing pumping restrictions that have cut water exports, while Delta interests and some environmental groups contend it will rob the Delta of more water and exacerbate existing problems.

In addition to receiving the EPA's letter, state officials this week said they will recirculate parts of the draft plan and take more public comment. That will push a final decision on the tunnels — originally scheduled for late this year — well into 2015.

The Delta supplies 25 million people with fresh water and 3 million acres of farmland.

A critic of the proposal, Bill Jennings of the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance, views this week's developments as signs the Delta project suffers from a terminal illness. Too much money has been spent already on developing the flawed plan, he said. "It's time to pull the plug," Jennings said. "Put an end to the suffering and get on with addressing California's real water problems."

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