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EPA Says Delta Water Tunnels Could Violate Federal Environmental Law, Harm Fish

SACRAMENTO (CBS SF) -- U.S. Environmental Protection Agency officials say California's $25 billion plan to build an enormous pair of twin tunnels system to pump water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta to other parts of the state may violate federal environmental law and harm endangered fish.

In a 43-page letter to the National Marine Fisheries Service released on the EPA's website on Thursday as part of the agency's official public comment to the state's Bay Delta Conservation Plan, the federal agency said it is concerned that the BDCP as currently proposed "may result in violations of Clean Water Act water quality standards and further degrade the ecosystem."

The letter's public release followed the California Department of Water Resources' announcement that it would delay the BDCP to allow more time to review some 8,500 public comments on the project. The decision was partly prompted by the EPA's feedback, said Richard Stapler of the California Natural Resources Agency.

The Department of Water Resources and other state agencies leading the BDCP environmental review will now revise some portions of the plan's environmental impact report, although Stapler declined to specify which parts will be revised.

The state plans to announce the new release date for the revised portions in six to eight weeks. Once it's re-distributed, the revised environmental impact report will be available for another round of public comment.

State agencies had originally planned to finalize the project by the end of the year but now expect to re-circulate the EIR "in early 2015," according to the Department of Water Resources.

"All of the past comments are still part of the public record and environmental impact document, this will just add another layer of public comment," Stapler said.

State officials have said the BDCP will create more reliable water supplies for the two-thirds of the state that get their water from the Delta while preserving and protecting native Delta fish, wildlife and plants with its proposed habitat conservation program.

The plan's most prominent feature - the construction of two 35-mile-long, 40-foot-wide tunnels designed to send more water to Southern California and other parts of the state - has come under fire from groups that say the tunnels will drain the Delta and harm its water quality while boosting water quality and quantity in other parts of the state.

The EPA's letter this week supported some of those criticisms, stating that while the BDCP's proposed water transfer system would "improve the water quality for agricultural and municipal water agencies that receive water exports from the Delta, water quality could worsen for farmers and municipalities who divert water directly from the Delta."

The proposed tunnel system would likely generate higher concentrations of mercury, selenium, chloride, salinity and pesticides in the San Francisco Bay-Delta estuary, according to the EPA.

The EPA said the plan, which proposes three large new water intake facilities near Courtland in Sacramento County, is also likely to adversely affect native Delta fish species, including endangered Delta smelt, longfin smelt and Chinook salmon.

While the BDCP includes the restoration of more than 150,000 acres of native habitat in order to counteract these projected impacts, the EPA said there no real evidence that the habitat restoration would be effective.

"We are concerned that the analysis assumes a 100 percent success rate for habitat restoration, which is not consistent with our experience," the EPA letter reads.

Barbara Barrigan-Parilla, executive director of Delta conservation group Restore the Delta and a vocal opponent of the BDCP, said the EPA's findings underline the project's "fatal flaws."

The BDCP is seven years in the making and is meant to provide a more stable water transfer system from the Delta, which supplies water to 25 million Californians and 4 million acres of farmland.

© Copyright 2014 by CBS San Francisco and Bay City News Service. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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