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Governor’s Budget Seeks to Build Water Resilience

Ellen Hanak, Gokce Sencan January 21, 2020
photo - Arcata Marsh and Wildlife Sanctuary. California

Earlier this month the Newsom administration laid out its vision for addressing the linked issues of water and climate in two key policy documents: the much-anticipated draft of its Water Resilience Portfolio (WRP) and the governor’s budget proposal. The WRP, which resulted from an April 2019 executive order, was developed with extensive input from state agencies and stakeholders from around California. It outlines more than 100 actions designed to ensure that communities, the economy, and ecosystems across California’s diverse regions are able to weather our increasingly volatile climate. The January budget provides a roadmap of the administration’s initial spending priorities in this area.

The big ticket item is the $4.75 billion Climate Resilience Bond, which could appear on the November 2020 ballot. More than 60% of the bond amount would directly support actions in the WRP—including integrated regional water projects, safe drinking water, flood protection, and environmental stewardship. The remainder would address other climate resilience issues for California communities—including reducing risks from wildfire, sea level rise, and extreme heat—and closing the funding gap for restoration efforts in the troubled Salton Sea.

General obligation bonds—which are repaid through the state General Fund—have been a key tool for funding water and environment initiatives over the past two decades. Although they usually pass (eight of nine have been approved since 2000, totaling $39 billion in today’s dollars), voters rejected the most recent water bond—an $8.9 billion bond on the November 2018 ballot.

The administration also proposes a modest allocation of General Fund dollars to near-term actions on the portfolio’s long to-do list. Key areas of investment include:

  • Groundwater sustainability: Groundwater is an essential drought reserve. This year, local agencies and water users in the state’s most stressed basins will begin implementing the landmark Sustainable Groundwater Management Act to bring their basins into balance. The budget proposes to spend $60 million on the hard work of reducing water demand in ways that support local communities and economies, such as water trading and making the best use of fallowed cropland.
  • Better data for decision making: The WRP emphasizes the importance of modernizing data use to make the most of our water resources, and acknowledges the key role of the state as a data collector and developer. Of note is the proposed allocation of $80 million toward development of statewide LiDAR maps—landscape contour images that can help guide investments in habitat improvements and efforts to reduce risks from flooding and sea level rise.
  • Cutting “green tape”: The WRP also stresses the importance of improving the approval process for projects designed to enhance the natural environment, which is especially vulnerable to climate change. The current process, which involves many agencies, causes lengthy and costly delays. The budget proposes to reduce “green tape” by allocating $4 million for new staff positions to help make the approval process more efficient. Even modest additional resources, coupled with strong direction from state leadership to agency staff, could help California move toward truly coordinated, expedient, and effective stewardship of our natural environment.

The administration’s proposals provide much food for thought about state priorities in the California water arena. The WRP in particular emphasizes the state’s role in facilitating and supporting efforts at local and regional levels, where most water investments take place. In the coming months, there will no doubt be a lively debate about the specifics of the Climate Resilience Bond—which must be finalized by early summer to qualify for the ballot—as well as the other ways the Newsom administration and the legislature can help the state’s communities, economies, and environment build water resilience.

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