Trump opposes massive California water project

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SAN FRANCISCO (AP) - A massive California water project has drawn opposition from the Trump administration, the government said Wednesday, the latest and one of the most serious blows to Gov. Jerry Brown's plan to re-engineer the state's water system by building two giant tunnels.

"The Trump administration did not fund the project and chose to not move forward with it," Russell Newell, deputy communications director for the U.S. Interior Department, said in an email.

Asked if that meant the Trump administration did not support California's tunnels project, Newell said yes. While the plan is a state initiative, it would intersect with existing state and federal water projects and would require approval from the Interior Department to move ahead.

Brown wants California water agencies to pay the $16 billion price tag to build two, 35-mile-long tunnels to divert part of the state's largest river, the Sacramento, to supply water to the San Francisco Bay Area and central and Southern California.

But the plan has run into its biggest obstacles yet in recent weeks, when two key water districts opted not to help fund it. While the federal government was never supposed to bear the cost of the project, the Obama administration spent millions planning for it.

The Interior Department's inspector-general last month challenged that financing, saying the U.S. agency under former President Barack Obama had improperly contributed $84 million in taxpayer funds to help pay for planning for the tunnels, which would be California's most ambitious water project in decades.

As a presidential candidate, Donald Trump had called broadly for more projects to bring more water to farmers in California, the country's leading agricultural state.

However, his administration had not previously taken a stand on the tunnels project pushed by California's Democratic governor, though federal wildlife agencies gave the green light in June. They found that the plan would not mean extinction for endangered and threatened native species, including native salmon.

The project would dig two tunnels, each the width of a three-lane highway, to tap into the Sacramento River. Brown's administration and the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California argued the giant pipes would make for more reliable water supplies, especially for the more arid south.

Supporters and opponents disagree on the impact for struggling native species. Opponents say the tunnels could be used to drain much of the water from the West Coast's largest estuary - the San Francisco Bay and adjoining rivers.

Brown spokesman Evan Westrup and Lisa Lien-Mager, a spokeswoman for the state Natural Resources Agency, did not immediately respond to requests for comment Wednesday on the Trump administration's stand.

"At a minimum, this announcement certainly complicates the state's chances of ever funding and permitting the massive twin tunnels project," said Doug Obegi, a senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council, which opposes the plan. "It's yet another reason for the state to transparently work with all stakeholders to reconsider this proposal."

The Trump administration has targeted several projects supported by his predecessor, from immigration initiatives to international trade deals.

Trump's policies also directly contrast with many of those backed by Brown, who has referred to the president's supporters as cave-dwellers and last month called Trump's actions in office "stupid and dangerous and silly."

Newell, with the Interior Department, released the stance against the tunnels in response to a request Tuesday by California's Democratic members of Congress for a new probe of U.S. spending on the project under Obama.

Five Democrats, including opponents of the tunnels, asked the U.S. General Accountability Office to determine whether the planning payments were illegal.

"The $84 million spent in taxpayers' money without disclosure to Congress and kept hidden from the public were decisions driven and executed by the Obama administration and that team," Newell said.

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke "believes that using tax dollars wisely and ethically is a big responsibility and is at the heart of good government," Newell said.

Federal and state authorities were discussing cooperation on the project since at least 2008, when George W. Bush was in office. Obama's administration pushed for the tunnels, including funding planning costs.

An Interior official under the Bush and now Trump administrations, David Bernhardt, has professional ties with a leading California water district whose support was vital to the project.

However, the district, Westlands, voted last month against participating, saying it did not make sense financially for its rural water users.