California Governor Gavin Newsom on Friday pledged to accelerate construction projects worth hundreds of billions of dollars across the state, including a pair of major water projects that have languished for years amid permit delays and opposition from environmental groups.
For the past decade, California officials have pursued water supply projects in the drought-prone state. We would build a giant tunnel to transport large amounts of water under the natural channels of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to drier and more populated Southern California.
The other would be massive new tank near the small community of Sites in northern California that could store more water during deluges — like the series of atmospheric rivers that hit the state earlier this year — for delivery to farmers.
But no project was built, despite promises from several governors and legislative leaders. Environmental groups have sued to block the tunnel project, arguing it would decimate endangered fish species, including salmon and delta smelt. The sites reservoir is still trying to obtain the necessary permits to begin construction.
Newsom is seeking a host of changes to expedite the necessary permits and approvals for these projects. Other projects that may be eligible include solar, wind and battery energy storage; public transport and regional railway; road and bridge maintenance projects; semiconductor factories; and wildlife crossings along Interstate 15, Newsom’s office said. His efforts to fast-track projects would not apply to building more homes.
A key proposal is to limit the time needed to resolve environmental lawsuits to around nine months. Newsom said his administration “is not looking to overthrow anyone,” including what he called the “fierce champions” of environmental stewardship.
“I mean, nine months, you can have a kid, okay? I mean it’s a long time,” Newsom said Friday during a site visit to a future solar farm in Stanislaus County.
Still, some environmental groups were furious. Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla, executive director of advocacy group Restore the Delta, said Newsom “wants to remove standard environmental protections to build the Delta Tunnel.”
“We have never been more disappointed in a California governor than Governor Newsom,” she said. “How is the perpetuation of environmental injustice, which harms public and environmental health, really different from the governors of red states perpetuating social injustice in their states, which Governor Newsom likes to vigorously criticize?”
Newsom says California has hundreds of billions of dollars to spend on infrastructure projects over the next decade, the result of voter-approved bonds, bountiful budget surpluses during the pandemic and an influx of federal cash from President Joe Biden’s infrastructure bill.
But he said the state is often too slow to approve these projects and federal money “goes to other states that are moving more aggressively.” Newsom said his proposals could shorten the time 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 creating what he called an “infrastructure strike team” to identify fast-track projects.
Jerry Brown, executive director of the Site Project Authority which oversees the new reservoir, said he believes Newsom’s proposals could allow construction to begin a year earlier, saving around $100 million. .
“It saves a lot of money and creates a lot of jobs in the pipeline,” he said.
Newsom wants the legislation to be part of the state budget, which must be passed before the end of June. This means that, if approved, it could come into force sooner and would only require a majority vote from the Democratic-controlled legislature.
Toni Atkins, Democrat of San Diego and leader of the state Senate, said “the climate crisis demands that we act faster to build and strengthen critical infrastructure,” adding that lawmakers “will ensure we can do so responsibly and in accordance with California’s Commitment to Highway Works and Environmental Protection.
Some Republicans applauded Newsom’s proposal, with Republican Senate Leader Brian Jones saying the governor is “finally taking action.” Others were more skeptical, with Republican Assembly Leader James Gallagher saying Democrats in the Legislature are the biggest obstacle to Newsom’s proposals.
“Gavin Newsom loves to brag that he can ‘smear’ Democratic lawmakers. Let’s see that,” Gallagher said. “Republicans are willing to work with him for real reform.”