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Former Interior Head Enlisted for California Giant Tunnels


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California Gov. Jerry Brown has enlisted a Washington senior statesman to help his massive, $15.7 billion water tunnel proposal clear regulatory and financial hurdles, officials said Thursday.

Since June 22, the state has paid former Secretary of Interior Bruce Babbitt $10,305 a month to advise senior administration officials on the project.

Brown wants a number of local water agencies to pay for building two 35-mile tunnels to carry water from the Sacramento River under the delta of the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers and on to water contractors, primarily in Central and Southern California.

With two years left in Brown's final term, however, his tunnels project is mired in debate that centers on how much water the tunnels would take from the river and delta.Supporters and opponents disagree over whether the tunnels would help or further harm endangered Delta smelt, winter-run Chinook salmon and other vanishing native species.

The project still needs approval from federal authorities.

Babbitt served as Interior secretary under President Bill Clinton. He also is a former Arizona governor and was a 1988 Democratic presidential candidate. Given Babbitt's experience, his "counsel will be helpful as we work to resolve long-standing water supply and ecological challenges in the delta," said Nancy Vogel, a state spokeswoman.

The Department of Water Resources did not respond to questions Wednesday from The Associated Press about Babbitt's hiring but confirmed the appointment Thursday. Babbitt was not available for comment, Vogel said.

In a December speech to California water agencies, however, Babbitt called for Brown to put his tunnels project to a "big, wide-ranging public debate" and get the state Legislature involved in clarifying how much water the tunnels would take. At the time, Babbitt called the project credible overall.

Contractors who would get the water have yet to commit to pay for the tunnels. They fear that restrictions enacted to protect the delta's endangered species mean water contractors would go into debt to build the tunnels but get little or no additional water from the project.

Westlands Water Agency, a Central California water contractor that initially pushed for the tunnels but now expresses doubts about the payoff, declined comment on Babbitt's hiring.

Environmental leaders opposed to the tunnels want to meet with Babbitt to discuss alternatives to the tunnels, said Bob Wright, senior counsel of the California environmental group Friends of the River.

By hiring of Babbitt, Brown is mostly "trying to get an operative who has access to the highest levels" at key federal agencies, as well as a high profile in water and environmental circles, Wright said.

Vogel, the state spokeswoman, said most of Babbitt's salary is coming from fees paid by state water contractors. About a tenth is coming from the state's general fund, which includes tax revenue, she said.

Copyright 2016 The Associated Press

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