When it comes to spending on water infrastructure to enhance water supply, protect farmers’ livelihoods and provide safe and affordable drinking water to California’s nearly 40 million residents, this state has flubbed it repeatedly.
Californians desperately need Gov. Gavin Newsom to step up and be the solution, not the problem.
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The state has failed to invest appropriately in large, statewide surface-water storage and conveyance, leaving California ill-prepared for drought conditions and jeopardizing its environmental and fiscal health.
In 2014, Californians overwhelmingly voted for Prop. 1, which included significant resources for critical, large surface-water storage that would provide a more reliable water supply. However, the political will to prioritize building these projects faded just as soon as water began falling from the sky and environmentalists pushed back against any new reservoirs.
Seven years later, amid another drought emergency, the money Californians provided for storage in 2014 still go unused. About $2.7 billion of the $7.2 billion in Prop. 1 bonds was allocated specifically for water storage projects, but only $150 million has been authorized, according to the Public Policy Institute of California. To date, not one shovel has hit the ground, not one gallon of water has been stored.
In 2016, after spending billions on habitat restoration and research to better understand the needs of listed species and a growing state, the state and federal governments mutually decided to update the coordinated operations plan that governs the federally operated Central Valley Project and California’s State Water Project.
After a full environmental review, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation under President Donald Trump authorized a new operations plan in February 2020 and began implementing the new biological recommendations the next day — capturing, storing and delivering water.
Newsom chose to dump the scientifically based and meticulously crafted water plan just two months later.
In 2018, the California Water Plan underwent an historic revision to include stating “all Californians benefit from such desirable conditions as reduced flood risk, more reliable water supplies, reduced groundwater depletion, and greater habitat and species resiliency.”
In 2020, Newsom issued an executive order directing state agencies to “act boldly” by developing a comprehensive strategy to build a climate-resilient water system and to identify, assess and prioritize actions to ensure safe and sustainable water supplies, flood protection and healthy waterways for the state’s communities, economy and environment.
The agencies he amassed as his water planning task force viewed Prop. 1 bond funds as a reliable source of funding. Yet even though the California Water Commission has approved one new, large surface-water storage project — Sites Reservoir in Colusa County — it still hasn’t moved forward.
The reality is California has not completed a major water storage project of statewide significance since New Melones Dam was completed in 1980.
Newsom needs to take an active leadership role in directing state agencies to expedite permitting and make water storage a priority. He can provide regulatory exemptions to streamline the delivery of projects and keep costs as low as possible. He can also prioritize state and federal funding to projects that will increase water availability, provide water savings or provide emergency drinking water relief for struggling communities in the next 1-2 years. He has the authority to use emergency and direct appropriations rather than competitive grants to expedite water projects.
Instead, the governor has demonstrated an affinity for acting on his own. He needs to use that authority for the good of Californians and expedite Sites Reservoir in Colusa County, the only large surface-water storage project in the pipeline.
California cannot continue to supply water to 40 million people with a system designed for 19 million. This state is woefully, inadequately prepared, and without substantial new investments in infrastructure to provide additional water supply and move water where it is needed, California will remain in a state of perpetual drought.
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