Agriculture · Highlight

Despite no drought emergency, Calif. Senate mulls $3.4bil plan to fight it

Thursday, California state legislators will weigh-in on a plan to spend $3.41 billion in new spending in response to the state’s worsening drought and tackling deepening issues surrounding the Golden State’s water utilities.

It also raises the specter that Sacramento is fully moving on from long-sought, major water storage project in the San Joaquin Valley in the hopes of attaining smaller victories faster.

The California Senate Budget Committee is set to review a budget plan aimed at tackling twin issues tied to the drought and coronavirus: ever-dwindling water supply and Californians’ dizzying stack of unpaid water utility bills.

Backing modest water projects, quickly

The plan seeks to spend $1 billion on drought response efforts, with half headed toward one-time grants of up to $5 million per community for water projects tied to drinking water reliability, water quality, and shoring up supplies.

The other $500 million in drought is focused on water efficiency efforts. $250 million is proposed to be spent on grants for local water agencies to improve water efficiency projects for commercial and residential users.

The other $250 million is proposed to be set aside for construction and upgrades of irrigation ponding basins.

A focus on SGMA and fish preservation

Beyond the proposed $1 billion in spending on immediate drought assistance, lawmakers are considering spending an additional $350 million on the implementation of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA) and $285 million for fish and wildlife preservation.

SGMA, a law enacted in 2014 by Gov. Jerry Brown, seeks to drastically pare back California’s use of groundwater pumping, which San Joaquin Valley farmers argue will put nearly 1,000,000 acres of Ag land out of production.

The $285 million set aside for wildlife preservation includes funding for “short-term acquisition and construction of transfer of water,” a Senate report says. It also covers drought management for fish species within the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and for coastal salmon.

The Senate drought proposal also includes $600 million for ancillary water efforts.

One-third of that sum is dedicated for so-called “resilient water infrastructure projects,” including groundwater recharge projects, well rehabilitations, or well improvements aimed at groundwater banking.

The other two-thirds center on recycled water projects and stormwater management.

Clearing the slate on Californians’ unpaid water bills

The Senate proposal also takes aim at one of the unique issues emerging from the coronavirus pandemic: unpaid water bills by residential water users.

A January report from the State Water Resources Control Board calculated that California water agencies faced a staggering $1 billion in unpaid bills from residential users.

The Senate proposal folds in $1 billion in spending from Federal coronavirus relief funding to relieve that growing sum of unpaid water bills.

Deploying Temperance Flat’s returned cash

Beyond hefty spending from the state’s General Fund and successive Federal coronavirus relief packages, the Senate drought proposal also calls on the California Water Commission to reallocate $145 million in funds from 2014’s Proposition 1 originally intended for Temperance Flat Dam.

Where should the money go? Senate drafters point to “other sustainable water storage investments in the Central Valley.”

The Temperance Flat Reservoir Authority, the agency tasked with the ultimate construction of the would-be dam, returned $171 million in Water Storage Investment Program funds last December, citing an inability to reach key deadlines for studies and securing additional funding.

Alex Tavlian
Alex Tavlian is the Executive Editor of The San Joaquin Valley Sun and Executive Director of Valley Future Foundation. You can reach Alex at alex.tavlian@sjvsun.com.