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Tunnels to bring water to parched California

SAN BERNARDINO, California (Reuters) - A massive mechanical mole surfaced on Wednesday from a nearly 5-year journey under mountains in the final stages of a $1.2 billion tunnel project that will supply extra water to drought-hit Southern California.

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The 3.8-mile (6.1-km) tunnel, 1,500 feet below the San Bernardino Mountains, is the last piece of a 44-mile (71-km), three-tunnel system that will bring an additional 650 million gallons a day to 19 million Southern Californians, water officials said.

Twenty years in the making, the tunnels will almost triple the amount of water in Southern California’s half-empty reservoirs when the project is up and running in 2010.

“We’re not just breaking through a mountain, we are breaking through to the future,” said Tim Brick, chairman of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California board, as the mechanical mole, a tunnel-boring machine, blasted through the final feet of the rocky mountainside.

The Inland Feeder, one of biggest water engineering projects in the state since the 1960s, nears completion at a crucial time in California which is facing one of the worst droughts in its history.

“We’re potentially headed to one of the worst droughts we’ve ever had in California because of the conditions of storage, the fact that we’re expecting very erratic weather patterns, and we have much more demand than the last drought in 1993,” Lester Snow, director of the California Department of Water Resources, told Reuters.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger declared a state-wide drought emergency in June because of forecasts of yet another drier than normal winter, record lows in some reservoirs and population growth. California now has about 38 million people, up from 32 million during a big drought 15 years ago.

The looming crisis has brought appeals for more investment and for conservation in Los Angeles and other cities, including bans on garden sprinklers at night and restrictions on water served in restaurants.

The Inland Feeder will give the metropolitan water district that serves six Southern California counties, greater flexibility to deliver and store water from the rainy season in Northern California to the semi-arid south.

“When water is available we must be prepared to move large volumes of water during a relatively short time and then store it for use during dry periods and emergencies,” Brick said.

Climate change has meant less water from melting snow in the Sierra Mountains, one of the main sources of water in the state. Snow said this past March to June was the driest on record in that region.

Southern California is also served by hundreds of miles (kilometers) of aqueducts, built in the early 20th century, from the Colorado River.

Levels in the state’s two largest reservoirs are at 48 percent and 40 percent capacity -- the lowest in more than 30 years -- and are expected to drop further by the end of December, officials say.

They are urging both investment in desalination plants, and water recycling and for Californians to save 20 percent of their current water usage.

“We’ve had a reliable water supply from what people did 50 years ago. It’s now time to re-look at the system and reinvest,” Snow said.

Editing by Cynthia Osterman