Federal agencies reviewing draft environmental documents for the state's proposal to re-plumb the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta are criticizing the work as "insufficient," "biased" and "confusing."
The federal comments suggest it's going to be tough for the state to meet its self-imposed deadline of releasing the draft this October for official public comment, an important step in moving the project forward.
In what would be the biggest water supply project constructed in California in half a century, the state is proposing to build a large diversion point on the Sacramento River in the north delta and send the water through two 35-mile tunnels to aqueducts serving the San Joaquin Valley and Southern California.
By adding the diversion point and restoring more than 100,000 acres of delta habitat, the south-of-the-delta urban and agricultural water contractors who have promised to pay for much of the project are hoping to get relief from environmental restrictions on their deliveries.
The project, estimated to cost about $24 billion, must pass muster with federal fishery agencies that oversee endangered species protections for migrating salmon and the delta's imperiled native fish.
In response to previous federal comments, the state reduced the number of river intakes and agreed to propose initial operating rules for the project that would increase flows in the delta — giving contractors less water than they want. If the restoration efforts succeed in improving conditions for delta fish, the rules could be changed to allow for more water exports under the project's adaptive management program.
But judging by the latest round of comments, posted online Thursday by the state Natural Resources Agency, federal biologists still aren't satisfied.
The National Marine Fisheries Service, which oversees protection for salmon that migrate through the delta, called the environmental draft "currently insufficient" and said it "will need to be revised."
The fisheries agency faulted the draft for arriving at "seemingly illogical conclusions" in some sections or lacking analysis to back up a conclusion.
In one part of the lengthy draft, "both the language and the content … are advocating for the project and could be perceived as biased," the fisheries service wrote.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which oversees protections for the delta smelt and other native fish, also spotted pro-project bias in the draft, which was prepared by a consultant and is supposed to present an objective overview of the proposal's environmental effects.
Citing one paragraph, fish and wildlife said the wording amounted to "unjustified advocacy." Other comments called the document "very difficult to read" and cited "factual and analytical errors."
Repeating earlier criticisms, federal biologists also said the assumed benefits of restoration were unproven.
In a statement, Natural Resources Deputy Secretary Jerry Meral said his agency was confident "that all the issues raised in the comments can be successfully resolved in the coming months."
"It is important to remember that regulatory agencies by their nature do not give out 'gold stars' for work, but road maps for improvement," Meral said. "We will continue to follow that map."