By Dale Kasler

President Donald Trump's administration said Wednesday it opposes the Delta tunnels project, another setback for California Gov. Jerry's Brown's plan to transform the troubled estuary and improve water deliveries to the south state.

Russell Newell, a spokesman for the U.S. Interior Department, told the Associated Press that "the Trump administration did not fund the project and chose to not move forward with it."

Newell's comments appeared to dovetail with the stance taken by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which is part of Interior and operates the federal Central Valley Project. Reclamation officials in Sacramento previously have said the tunnels proposal isn't a Reclamation project and Central Valley Project customers have the freedom to opt out of the plan.

Reclamation also instituted a cost-allocation formula that exempts certain customers, inflating the costs for the remaining water districts. As a result, not a single Central Valley Project customer has agreed to help pay for the tunnels, leaving a funding gap of at least $6 billion in a $17 billion project.

Tunnels opponents said Newell's statement puts the tunnels project, officially known as California WaterFix, further in doubt.

"This is no longer just the regional (Reclamation) director; this seems to be the Interior Department's announcement, they're not moving forward with it," said Doug Obegi, a senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council. "That does seem like a pretty big announcement."

The Brown administration declined to comment immediately on the statement. In recent weeks, as funding from Central Valley Project water agencies has collapsed, the Brown administration has talked about scaling back the project and funding it solely with dollars from State Water Project customers.

The State Water Project pumps Northern California river water from the Delta to the south state, just like the federal system. But unlike Reclamation, the Brown administration has said every south-of-Delta customer of the State Water Project must help pay for WaterFix or find another customer to take their place.

So far most of the major State Water Project customers have agreed to participate, although some have made firmer commitments than others. The biggest commitment comes from the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, which agreed to spend more than $4 billion building the tunnels.

Metropolitan, which has been one of the leading cheerleaders for WaterFix, declined to comment on Newell's statement.

Newell made his comments in response to demands by five Democratic congressmen to investigate the use of federal tax dollars to help plan the tunnels project. In September the Interior Department's inspector general found that Reclamation spent $84 million in tax money to work on the initial planning, including $50 million that won't be reimbursed to taxpayers. State officials have insisted that all costs of WaterFix would be borne by ratepayers of the south-of-Delta water agencies that would benefit from the tunnels.

"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 told the Associated Press.

The tunnels represent an effort to overcome the environmental harm left by decades of pumping by both water projects. The Delta's eco-system has deteriorated and fish species are in danger of extinction. The pumps, located at the south Delta near Tracy, are so powerful that they can cause some of the Delta's rivers to flow in reverse and pull fish toward predators. Because of the Endangered Species Act, the pumps sometimes have to be turned off or throttled back, allowing water to flow out to the ocean.

By diverting a portion of the Sacramento River's flow upstream at Courtland, and piping it directly to the Tracy pumps via twin underground tunnels, Brown's administration says WaterFix can enable the pumps to operate more reliably without harming fish. Environmentalists, who are fighting the project in court, say the upstream diversions will harm Delta water quality and make the eco-system worse.

(c)2017 The Sacramento Bee (Sacramento, Calif.)