Nature Conservancy backs Sacramento-area Delta canal, with conditions

One of the nation's largest environmental groups has decided to support building a controversial new water canal around the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

In a statement expected today, the Nature Conservancy calls a canal diverting the Sacramento River around the Delta an "essential component" to restore the estuary and protect water supplies. It thus becomes the first major environmental group to publicly support the project.

But the conservancy wants a new and independent governing agency formed first, to ensure that the canal is operated both to enhance the environment and protect water supplies. Resolving such thorny issues is why the group chose to express conditional support for the canal now.

"We need to explore something that's new and has more independence, and we need to do that as soon as possible," said Anthony Saracino, the conservancy's California water program director. "The trick really isn't in the engineering; it's in the governance."

This conflicts with Schwarzenegger administration officials, who on Friday opted to spend another year debating governance while planning to start canal construction in 2011.

It also left other environmental groups puzzling over the announcement.

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