Interior Department clarifies, says it will continue to work on delta tunnels project

After several hours of confusion over the Trump administration’s position on a massive water delivery project, the Interior Department said Wednesday it would continue to work with the state on California WaterFix.

California officials were scratching their heads over a department statement that the Trump administration does not support the project, which the federal government has helped plan.

Russell Newell, the department’s deputy communications director, told the Associated Press: “The Trump administration did not fund the project and chose to not move forward with it."

The $17-billion project involves construction of two giant tunnels under the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and a new diversion point on the Sacramento River.

It would be owned and operated by the state and funded by the water districts that use it.

The regional office of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation has stated several times that it has no authorization to help pay for project construction and is not seeking funding authority.

But the bureau has helped with planning and preparation of environmental documents. And irrigation districts that receive delta water from the federal Central Valley Project are potential tunnel customers.

It was initially unclear whether Newell was reiterating the reclamation agency’s previous funding position or making a broader statement that the administration was withdrawing any participation in planning and environmental reviews.

In a statement released Wednesday afternoon, Interior said its position had not changed.

“While the Department of the Interior shares the goals of the state of California to deliver water with more certainty, eliminating risks to the California water supply, and improving the environment, at this time, the Department under the current state proposal does not expect to participate in the construction or funding of the CA WaterFix. The Department and Reclamation will continue to work with the state and stakeholders as the project is further developed,” the department said.

Bob Muir, a spokesman for the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, one of the project’s biggest backers, said he had “no idea” what to make of Newell’s remarks.

“We haven’t had any discussion with them regarding this position, and we would like to withhold comment until then,” Muir said.

Newell made his comments after five California Democratic House members requested a federal probe into previous Interior Department spending on the tunnel planning.

Last month, a federal audit found that the department had left federal taxpayers on the hook for $50 million in planning expenses that should have been picked up by the project’s potential federal customers.

Because the subsidy was not disclosed, Congress was unaware of the full extent of the reclamation bureau’s more than $84 million in expenditures on tunnel planning.

“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.

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UPDATES:

2 p.m.: This article was updated with comment from the Interior Department.

1:05 p.m.: This article has been updated throughout with staff reporting.

This article was originally published at 9:55 a.m.

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