AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Today in California, Governor Jerry Brown and U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced a new project. It would deliver water from the Sierra Nevada Mountains to 25 million people stretching from Silicon Valley to San Diego. And it would cost $17 billion.
Lauren Sommer, of member station KQED, tells us more about this new plan to manage California's water and how it came about.
LAUREN SOMMER, BYLINE: Almost all of the state's water is found in Northern California, the very top part. The rest of the state is where most of the people live. This problem was painfully obvious to state planners a century ago. They knew, for California to grow, they had to move the water south.
RONALD SILVA: Right now, we're situated on the upstream side of the C.W. Bill Jones Pumping Plant.
SOMMER: Ronald Silva of the Bureau of Reclamation runs this plant about 60 miles east of San Francisco. It pumps millions of gallons every minute. The water goes into canals that stretch all the way to Los Angeles, Silicon Valley and farmland in the Central Valley. Where it comes from?
SILVA: The water is coming out of the delta.
SOMMER: The Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, an inland estuary where California's two largest rivers meet before they flow out to San Francisco Bay. To water planners, it was the perfect place to tap into. That is, until the problems started. Ten years ago, the delta's fish populations crashed. Chinook salmon numbers went so low, the commercial fishery shut down for two years. Biologists say this happened for a number of reasons - habitat loss, invasive species, pollution and the water pumps.
BARRY NELSON: The pumps in the south delta are so powerful that they literally reverse the direction of flow.
SOMMER: Barry Nelson is with the nonprofit Natural Resources Defense Council.
NELSON: Very easy for those fish to follow that water and get sucked right into the pumps.
SOMMER: Federal wildlife agencies stepped in and said water pumping had to slow down during certain times of year to protect fish. That didn't go over well in certain parts of the state.
JASON PELTIER: Our farmers have seen a rough couple decades dealing with uncertainty, unpredictability.
SOMMER: That's Jason Peltier with Westlands Water District, an agricultural area in the Central Valley that depends on water from the delta.
PELTIER: You can't get a loan to farm unless you can show the banker what water you have.
SOMMER: John Laird is California's Secretary for Natural Resources.
JOHN LAIRD: There was lawsuit after lawsuit and it got to the point that it made much more sense to look at the entire delta as a whole.
SOMMER: The state announced today it hopes to do that with something called the peripheral tunnel. The 35-mile project would take water from farther upstream, bypassing the delta. Supporters say that would make the water supply more reliable. It's not a new idea. Laird points to 1982, when California voters defeated a similar plan.
LAIRD: The real debate is not the tunnel itself. It's how much water and when can it flow through the tunnel.
SOMMER: State and federal wildlife agencies raised a red flag a few months ago, saying a large project could harm the delta's endangered species. Laird says they'll restore thousands of acres of wetlands to compensate. California voters would be on the hook for up to 3 billion to pay for that, while water users would pay the remaining 14 billion for the tunnel. It's a tough sell in today's economy, but state officials say a necessary one if the water deadlock is ever going to be broken.
For NPR News, I'm Lauren Sommer in San Francisco.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.