Newsom Lays Out Big Dreams for California’s Water Future

Site of the potential intake for the delta tunnel project in the north Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, near Freeport. (Courthouse News photo / Katie Cahill)

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) — Touting ways to shield California’s most precious resource from climate change, Governor Gavin Newsom released strategies Tuesday to improve drinking water quality, revive a stalled multibillion-dollar tunnel and build new dams. 

Newsom says the sweeping water portfolio will help the Golden State prepare for global warming by reinforcing outdated water infrastructure and reducing the state’s reliance on groundwater during future droughts.

“Water is the lifeblood of our state, sustaining communities, wildlife and our economy,” said Newsom in a statement. “For more than a year, my administration has worked to assemble a blueprint to secure this vital and limited resource into the future in a way that builds climate resilience for all communities and sustains native fish and the habitat they need to thrive.”

Newsom kicked off his second year in office in January by announcing the rough draft of the so-called “Water Resilience Portfolio.”

The planning document, which details 142 water-related ideas, was shaped by the state’s resources management agencies and is the result of Newsom’s April 2019 executive order. 

While the resulting blueprint doesn’t promise a “quick or singular fix” to California’s longstanding water woes, it does offer ways to improve physical infrastructure and water transfers, settle disputes between environmentalists and farmers, implement new recycling programs, improve soil health, wetlands expansion and even restore the Salton Sea.

The first draft was well received by farmers, water districts and others in California’s water circle, but critics bemoaned the inclusion of megaprojects like a thorny $17 billion plan to tunnel underneath a major estuary as well as a massive new dam off the state’s largest river. 

After getting feedback from over 200 organizations and residents, the Newsom administration says the revised blueprint is ready to go. The finalized version adds 14 new actions, including promises to improve communications with tribal governments and address cross-border water issues.

“The state’s playbook for managing water in coming decades must be broad and comprehensive,” said Natural Resources Secretary Wade Crowfoot. “The portfolio identifies how the state can help regions maintain and diversify water supplies, protect and enhance natural systems and prepare for a future that looks very different from our recent past.”

But the additions to Newsom’s wide-ranging portfolio didn’t immediately appease environmental groups, including those dedicated to improving water quality in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta.

Sierra Club California said Newsom is continuing down the failed path of his predecessor Jerry Brown by pushing the so-called Delta Tunnel, instead of addressing more implementable goals.

“It’s basically a catalog,” said Kathryn Phillips, Sierra Club director. “This version doesn’t contain the significant changes we asked for; we can’t figure out who’s running the ship over there when it comes to water.” 

The finalized portfolio advances support for the tunnel, further linking Newsom to one of the most controversial water projects in state history.

“Plan, permit, and build new diversion and conveyance facilities (such as a tunnel) in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to safeguard State Water Project and, potentially, Central Valley Project deliveries drawn from the Sacramento and San Joaquin river systems,” the portfolio states.

The plan additionally directs state agencies to “accelerate” permitting for Sites Reservoir, a multibillion-dollar new dam project in Northern California, finally come up with a feasible plan to restore water to and improve air quality near the Salton Sea and tackle contaminated water and trash spewing across the Mexican border.    

Considering the state’s dreary budget condition, the complicated nature of California water policy and the myriad of involved parties — from the federal government, environmentalists and the agricultural industry — the 141-page portfolio is as ambitious as it is long.

But Newsom says the immediate priorities will be improving safe and affordable drinking water, implementing a statewide groundwater monitoring rule, settling fights over delta pumping limits, building the tunnel and expanding water recycling programs.   

Restore the Delta, which participated in public hearings regarding the portfolio and encouraged the state to prioritize fighting the increasingly common harmful algae breaks in the delta, scoffed at Tuesday’s announcement.

“Same old, same old. Yawn,” said Restore the Delta in a tweet

Despite the state’s pandemic-induced deficit and the critics’ concerns, state officials say the portfolio will guide the way.

“By implementing this portfolio of actions together, we can meet the existential threat posed by climate change with a strategic sense of obligation and vision,” said Environmental Protection Secretary Jared Blumenfeld in a statement.

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