California Governor Gavin Newsom on Friday pledged to fast-track hundreds of billions of dollars worth of construction projects across the state, including a pair of major water projects that have suffered massive flooding. years between allowing delays and opposition from environmental groups.
For the past decade, California officials have pursued water projects in the drought-prone state. One will build a giant tunnel which would bring more water under the natural channels of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to the drier and more populated Southern California.
Another can be a large new reservoir near the small community of Sites in Northern California that can store large amounts of water during deluges — like the series of atmospheric rivers that hit the state earlier this year — for delivery to farmers.
But no project has been built, despite the promises of several governors and legislative leaders. Environmental groups sued to block the tunnel project, arguing it would destroy threatened fish species, including salmon and Delta smelt. Sites Reservoir is still trying to get the necessary permits to begin construction.
Newsom is seeking several changes to make it faster for these projects to get the necessary permits and approvals. Other projects that may qualify include solar, wind and battery power storage; transit and regional rail; road maintenance and bridge projects; semiconductor plants; and crossing wildlife on Interstate 15, Newsom’s office said. His efforts to speed up the projects will not be used to build more houses.
An important proposal is to limit the time period to resolve environmental cases to about nine months. Newsom said his administration is “not looking to beat anybody,” including what he called “fierce champions” of environmental stewardship.
“I mean, nine months, you will have a child, OK? I mean that’s a long time,” Newsom said Friday while visiting the site of a future solar farm in Stanislaus County.
Still, some environmental groups are outraged. Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla, executive director of the advocacy group Restore the Delta, said Newsom “wants to waive environmental protection standards to build the Delta tunnel.”
“We have never been more disappointed in a California governor than Governor Newsom,” he said. “How is perpetuating environmental injustice, which harms public health and the environment, any different than red state governors perpetuating social injustice in their states, which Governor Newsom wants to criticize?”
Newsom said California has hundreds of billions of dollars to spend on infrastructure projects over the next decade, the result of voter-approved ballot measures, large budget surpluses during the pandemic and an influx of federal that money from. President Joe Biden’s infrastructure bill.
But he said the state is often slow to approve projects and that federal money “goes to other states that are more aggressive.” Newsom said his proposals could shorten how long it takes to build projects by more than three years.
His office said the legislation would allow various state agencies, including the Department of Transportation, to more quickly approve projects and issue permits. Newsom also signed an executive order on Friday that created what he called an “infrastructure strike team” to identify projects quickly.
Jerry Brown, executive director of the Sites Project Authority that oversees the new reservoir, said he thinks Newsom’s proposals could allow construction to start a year earlier, saving about $100 million.
“That will save a lot of money and get a lot of work in the pipeline,” he said.
Newsom wants the legislation to become part of the state budget, which must be passed before the end of June. That means, if approved, it would go into effect as soon as possible and would only need a majority vote in the Democratic-controlled Legislature.
Toni Atkins, a Democrat from San Diego and the leader of the state Senate, said that “the climate crisis requires us to act faster to build and strengthen critical infrastructure,” adding that the Legislator “can make sure we can do it responsibly, and in line with California’s commitment to high road jobs and environmental protection.
Some Republicans cheered Newsom’s proposal, with Senate Republican Leader Brian Jones saying the governor was “finally taking action.” Others are more skeptical, with Assembly Republican Leader James Gallagher saying that Democrats in the Legislature are the biggest obstacle to Newsom’s proposals.
“Gavin Newsom likes to brag that he can ‘jam’ Democratic lawmakers. We’ll see,” Gallagher said. “Republicans are ready to work with him toward real reforms.”