Central Valley lawmakers are gaining ground in the Legislature with three measures that would expedite environmental permits and limit lawsuits with new water projects. Yet environmental groups have lined up in opposition to those measures and others that would set targets for expanding the water supply.
The author of two such bills, Senator Anna Caballero of Merced framed the issue as protecting vulnerable disadvantaged communities from the impacts of climate change.
“In my district, farmworkers were required to leave their homes and many of them have still not returned because of the flooding,” said Caballero, in describing the recent storm impacts to agricultural regions in the San Joaquin Valley and Central Coast.
The flooding has led to 22 fatalities and displaced thousands of individuals and their families, while inundating agricultural land with contaminated water, delaying production and exacerbating the financial impacts of widespread fallowing last year, according to Caballero.
She blamed the “unnecessarily lengthy permitting process for water supply and flood risk reduction projects” as contributing to the problem, arguing it is long, expensive, confusing and mired in delays. The compiled costs from the delays can stretch into tens of millions of dollars per year—often at the expense of ratepayers—and result in worse environmental outcomes, she explained.
“Improving water supply reliability and ecosystem resiliency through the development of new infrastructure requires efforts to modernize regulatory schemes,” she said during a committee hearing last week.
Caballero introduced Senate Bill 23 to ease some of the regulatory gridlock by establishing timelines for state agencies to permit projects. It would direct the State Water Resources Control Board to implement its dredge and fill procedures for waters of the state under the Clean Water Act, which already include provisions to streamline the application process. The bill would also create a mechanism for applicants to cover the cost of hiring additional staff to speed up the pace.
Dozens of water districts and farm groups support the measure.
Testifying in support, Adam Quinonez, a legislative and regulatory relations director at the Association of California Water Agencies, praised a water bond proposed by Sen. Ben Allen of Santa Monica, who chaired the policy committee.
“The funding is great,” said Quinonez. “But we have to actually get projects built in a timely fashion to address the impacts of climate change.”
Setting time limits for reviewing projects under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), however, was viewed as a threat by environmental groups.
“Effective permitting of water supply and flood control projects is critical to protect the environment, downstream communities and ratepayers,” said Doug Obegi, an attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council. “Our ecological crisis throughout the Bay-Delta is primarily the result of unsustainable water diversions. Poorly designed projects could worsen those project problems.”
In a letter opposing SB 23, a coalition of environmental groups used an on-farm recharge project to outline their point. In January the state water board and the Department of Water Resources (DWR) approved a six-month permit for landowners in Merced County to divert excess flows from the Mariposa Creek. According to the letter, the regional water board later discovered the project was proposing to recharge on dairy lands, posing concerns over nitrate contamination. Gov. Gavin Newsom later clarified that the state is not endorsing recharge at dairies when he issued an executive order easing the permitting process for flood-managed aquifer recharge amid winter storms.
Erin Woolley, a policy advocate for the Sierra Club, levied a similar argument against SB 651 by Republican Sen. Shannon Grove of Bakersfield. That legislation proposes to shorten the judicial review period for projects outlined in groundwater sustainability plans, meaning the projects would spend less time tied up in litigation.
“Many GSAs [groundwater sustainability agencies] have failed to achieve their short-term implementation goals because of the drought and long-drawn-out litigation,” said Grove during a committee hearing last week. “We shouldn't wait to capture much-needed water for our environment, food production and communities.”
She worried GSAs have just 17 years to build projects needed to comply with the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA), offering little time for legal battles. Grove pointed out that DWR has deemed six plans in her district as inadequate, suggesting her bill would help other GSAs avoid that classification.
“Historical lack of water, burdensome regulations and thin profit margins are all too common in our industry,” said David Edwards, who serves as a Senate fellow in Grove’s office and hails from a third-generation farming family in Merced County. “As SGMA is an emergency, it should be treated as such in the court of law.”
Woolley countered that the judicial review process acts as CEQA’s enforcement mechanism, ensuring public transparency and government accountability.
The Sierra Club is also one of three opponents on a bill backed by the California Farm Bureau. Republican Sen. Brian Dahle, at the opposite end of the Central Valley to Grove, has filed a measure to cap judicial reviews at 270 days for five specific projects.
SB 861 initially would have applied to all water storage and conveyance projects. But under pressure from Sen. Allen, Dahle narrowed the scope. A nearly identical bill in the Assembly maintains that provision and the Natural Resources Committee prevented the bill from advancing, as it did last year with a similar measure.
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“In recent years, we have prioritized using less water rather than saving and storing more water,” said Dahle. “California needs to start focusing on storing as much water as possible.”
The five projects include a groundwater bank near Chino, a recharge project for irrigating farmland, a groundwater storage project in Kern County, an expansion of the Los Vaqueros Reservoir and a water bank in Kern County.
Caballero and Obegi have also squared off over expanding the water supply. SB 366 would set a target of acquiring 10 million acre-feet (MAF) of additional storage by 2040, increasing to 15 MAF by 2050. Caballero argued that “California is in a race against climate change.”
Her bill aims to modernize the state’s water plan and amplify Newsom’s water supply strategy.
“We need to move from a mindset of managing for scarcity,” added Danielle Blacet-Hyden, deputy executive director of the California Municipal Utilities Association. “As one of the largest economies in the world, we should not have such a fragile water supply that three years of drought would nearly cripple our communities, farms and fishes.”
Obegi, however, wanted to “keep water in rivers,” rather than take it out.
SB 366 leapfrogs a Republican measure in the Assembly that would set a goal of increasing groundwater storage by 4 MAF by 2040 but faces Sierra Club opposition. Yet it falls below a much more ambitious measure to store 10 MAF by 2035 just in the form of groundwater— a bill that has garnered support from more than a dozen farm groups and has no opposition on file.
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