California governor seeks to speed up water, clean energy projects delayed by lawsuits, permits

May 19, 2023, 3:27 PM

FILE - California Gov. Gavin Newsom speaks during a press conference in Paramount Calif., on Monday...

FILE - California Gov. Gavin Newsom speaks during a press conference in Paramount Calif., on Monday, May 1, 2023. Newsom pledged on Friday, May 19, 2023, to fast track about $180 billion worth of construction projects throughout the state, including a pair of water projects that have languished for decades. (Hans Gutknecht/The Orange County Register via AP, File)
Credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS

(Hans Gutknecht/The Orange County Register via AP, File)

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — California Gov. Gavin Newsom on Friday pledged to fast-track hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of construction projects throughout the state, including a pair of large water endeavors that have languished for years amid permitting delays and opposition from environmental groups.

For the past decade, California officials have pursued the water projects in the drought-prone state. One would construct a giant tunnel to carry large amounts of water beneath the natural channels of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to drier and more populous Southern California.

The other would be a massive new reservoir near the tiny 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 neither project has been built, despite promises from multiple governors and legislative leaders. Environmental groups have sued to block the tunnel project, arguing it would decimate threatened species of fish, including salmon and the Delta smelt. The Sites Reservoir is still trying to acquire necessary permits to begin construction.

Newsom is seeking a slew of changes to make it much faster for these projects to gain the required permits and approvals. Other projects that could be eligible include solar, wind and battery power storage; transit and regional rail; road maintenance and bridge projects; semiconductor plants; and wildlife crossings along Interstate 15, Newsom’s office said. His efforts to speed projects would not apply to building more housing.

One key proposal is to limit the amount of time it takes to resolve environmental lawsuits to about nine months. Newsom said his administration is “not looking to roll over anybody,” including what he called the “fierce champions” of environmental stewardship.

“I mean, nine months, you can have a kid, 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 were furious. Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla, executive director of the advocacy group Restore the Delta, said Newsom “wants to do away with standard environmental protections to build the Delta tunnel.”

“We have never been more disappointed in a California governor than we are with Governor Newsom,” she said. “How is perpetuating environmental injustice, which harms public and environmental health, really any different than red state governors perpetuating social injustice in their states, which Governor Newsom likes to criticize vigorously?”

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 those projects and that the federal money is “going to other states that are moving more aggressively.” 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 creating what he called an “infrastructure strike team” to identify fast-track projects.

Jerry Brown, executive director of the Sites Project Authority that is overseeing the new reservoir, said he thinks Newsom’s proposals could allow construction to start a year early, saving about $100 million.

“That saves a lot of money and gets a lot of jobs in the pipeline,” he said.

Newsom wants the legislation to be part of the state’s budget, which must be passed before the end of June. That means, if approved, it could take effect sooner and would only require a majority vote of the Democratic-controlled Legislature.

Toni Atkins, a Democrat from San Diego and the leader of the state Senate, said “the climate crisis requires that we move faster to build and strengthen critical infrastructure,” adding that lawmakers will “ensure we can do so responsibly, and in line with California’s commitment to high road jobs and environmental protection.”

Some Republicans cheered Newsom’s proposal, with Republican Senate Leader Brian Jones saying the governor “is finally taking action.” Others were more skeptical, with Assembly Republican Leader James Gallagher saying Democrats in the Legislature are the biggest obstacle to Newsom’s proposals.

“Gavin Newsom loves to brag that he can ‘jam’ Democratic lawmakers. Let’s see it,” Gallagher said. “Republicans are ready to work with him towards real reforms.”

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California governor seeks to speed up water, clean energy projects delayed by lawsuits, permits