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Newsom unveils $8 billion plan to boost water supply

The first thing California needs to do, Newsom said, is to reform permit processes that take "years and years and years."

ANTIOCH, Calif. (CN) — "I don't know how we're sleeping at night," California Governor Gavin Newsom said Thursday when he unveiled a new $8 billion water strategy plan during a visit to a desalination plant, where he talked about innovation, infrastructure and the state's PR struggles when it comes to conservation. 

While drought continues to run rampant and extreme heat increases, the state could lose 10% of its water supply by 2040 unless swift action is taken. But, on par with his public rapport, Newsom didn't hesitate to call out the Golden State's bureaucratic red tape that impedes climate action plans.

"The time to get these damn projects is ridiculous. It's absurd. It's reasonably comedic. In so many ways, the world we invented is, from an environmental perspective, now getting in the way of moving these projects forward so we can address the acuities of Mother Nature," Newsom said before taking jabs at permit processes that take "years and years and years." 

However, Newsom and other officials including former Los Angeles mayor turned state infrastructure czar Antonio Villaraigosa are optimistic about the plan to bring a robust water supply to 8.4 million homes by 2040. Villaraigosa claims it is the largest effort to invest in infrastructure in the nation's history and has plans to leverage the water projects to craft apprenticeship programs to keep the momentum going.

Dubbed "California's Water Supply Strategy, Adapting to a Hotter, Drier Future," the plan lays out four key projects. Newsom intends to free up 500,000 acre-feet of water through efficient water use and conservation, recycle and reuse at least 800,000 acre-feet of water per year by 2030, create storage for up to 4 million acre-feet of water to capitalize on large storms and make new water available by desalinating ocean and groundwater. 

The desalination plants are a point of contention between Newsom and environmental groups despite how much fresh water they produce. The state has 37 plants, though it recently rejected a proposal for another plant in Huntington Beach. A brackish groundwater plant in Antioch near the San Francisco Bay Area was funded mainly by state grants and loans and will be able to produce 30% of the city's annual water supply.

"We must be more resourceful with the strategic opportunity that 840 miles of ocean coastline offer to build water resilience," the plan states, but offers no plan for disposing of the brine created by desalination, which is toxic to marine life. 

Some conservationists criticized Newsom's plan for doing little to hold the most prominent water consumers — oil companies and agriculture — accountable. 

"Newsom's drought plan to conserve water ironically does nothing to curtail the biggest water abusers who are also the biggest sources of greenhouse gas emissions fueling the crisis," said Food & Water Watch California organizing manager Tomás Rebecchi in a statement. "The toxic cycles of industrial agriculture and fossil fuel extraction use massive amounts of water that could otherwise go to public uses, kneecapping any attempt at meaningful water conservation."

Interestingly, research from Food and Water Watch found that by switching to renewable energy sources and moving away from fossil fuels, California could save 82 million cubic meters of water each year. This would be a 98% reduction in levels currently consumed by nuclear energy generation and fossil fuels. 

"Frontline communities can't afford desalination, and neither can the environment," said Rebecchi.

While financially aggressive, the $8 billion plan will be paid for with the state's surplus from the last two fiscal years. Newsom explained that federal dollars are available through a recent infrastructure bill passed by the Biden administration and more than $10 billion that "require us to go out and get it." 

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