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With budget surplus, now is the time to fund vital water projects

water

In summary

The Legislature has a rare opportunity to fund critical water projects by using some of the $12 billion state budget surplus.

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By Jim Nielsen

State Sen. Jim Nielsen, a Republican from Roseville, represents California’s 4th Senate District.

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Andreas Borgeas, Special to CalMatters

State Sen. Andreas Borgeas, a Republican from Fresno, represents California’s 8th Senate District.

Over the past 40 years, California has not completed a major water storage project of statewide significance despite the state’s population nearly doubling.

Without substantial new investments and commitments to capture, store and move water throughout the state, whole communities will be subject to water scarcity and farmers will be unable to produce adequate food supplies, threatening food and national security.

California’s failure to plan for drought conditions is forcing farmers to fallow hundreds of thousands of acres – many to the edge of ruin. Aside from the livelihoods of the many tens of thousands of farmers, ranchers, workers, truckers, veterinarians, packers and others who make up California’s agricultural industry, we must examine our own food security.

We cannot simply conserve or recycle our way out of current and future droughts. More water storage and infrastructure is a fundamental part of the solution. 

As chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee (Andreas Borgeas) and vice chair of the Budget Committee (Jim Nielsen), we feel a great sense of urgency to find solutions to the mismanagement of California’s water system. That is why we are introducing Senate Bill 890 to help facilitate building water storage by making significant investments in California’s above-ground water storage and conveyance infrastructure.

Specifically, SB 890 would establish the Water Storage and Conveyance Fund, providing $2.6 billion to complete funding requirements for Sites Reservoir and augmenting by $685 million the budget to repair the Friant-Kern and Delta-Mendota canals and the San Luis Field and San Joaquin Divisions of the California Aqueduct. 

Proposition 1, approved by voters in 2014, dedicated $2.7 billion for above-ground water storage projects. One of those projects – Sites Reservoir in Northern California – would help the state store an additional 1.5 million acre-feet of water. However, red tape, environmental pushback and insufficient funding to meet increasing construction costs has obstructed it from any meaningful progress. Not a single new drop of water has been stored since the voters passed this initiative.

Another example is last year’s Senate Bill 559, a bipartisan bill that would have provided significant funding to repair several Central Valley conveyance systems including the Friant-Kern Canal. The southernmost third of Friant-Kern has lost 60% of its ability to carry water, and farms, cities and rural communities that rely on the canal are losing up to 300,000 acre-feet of water per year in deliveries. 

Similarly, the diversion capacity of the Delta-Mendota Canal has decreased 30% at its terminus. With the knowledge of these major deficiencies in our conveyance systems, the majority party stripped SB 559 of its funding for these projects, despite the state possessing a huge budget surplus.

The Legislature has a rare window of opportunity to fund these critical water infrastructure projects by using some of the $12 billion in excess taxpayer revenues already collected. Under state law, when revenues exceed the state’s spending limit – the Gann Limit –  infrastructure projects may be financed using revenue from the general fund. 

Senate Republicans are urging Gov. Gavin Newsom and the Legislature to put some of the state’s surplus funds toward vitally needed water storage. The completion of Sites Reservoir and repairs on the Central Valley canals would go a long way toward preserving public health, protecting the environment and maintaining economic viability. 

Furthermore, state leaders must eliminate the red tape and obstacles that stall or kill water storage and conveyance projects behind the scenes. We must protect people and communities while ensuring food supplies and national security remain stable.

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State Sen. Andreas Borgeas has also written about steps to reopen California’s economy as the pandemic set in.

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