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Governor’s Budget Targets Safe Drinking Water, Wildfires, Healthy Soils

Gokce Sencan, Henry McCann January 23, 2019
Sacramento, California Capitol Building

Governor Newsom’s first proposed state budget, released earlier this month, addresses several critical water and natural resource management challenges. Here are highlights from his plans to mitigate problems with safe drinking water, improve forest health and reduce the risk of wildfires, and encourage healthy soils to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and increase drought resilience.

Safe and affordable drinking water: The governor’s budget proposal revives last year’s failed legislative proposal to tap urban water customers, agricultural fertilizer users, and dairies to pay for safe drinking water projects in small, disadvantaged communities with water quality challenges.

The proposed budget also includes a one-time capital investment of $168.5 million (compared to $93 million enacted in the previous budget) to fund safe drinking water and wastewater infrastructure projects in disadvantaged communities. The funds will come from Proposition 68—a $4 billion bond approved by voters in June 2018 for investments in water, parks, the environment, and flood protection. The proposed spending represents the remaining two-thirds of the $250 million in Proposition 68 funds for safe drinking water projects.

In addition, the governor proposes allocating $10 million from the General Fund for a State Water Board program that provides technical, operational, and managerial assistance to water systems serving disadvantaged communities. This funding will be used to implement the Board’s relatively new authority to hire third-party administrators to help water systems comply with safe drinking water standards—including tasks such as project planning and grant procurement. This authority was granted by SB 552 in 2016.

The budget also allocates $10 million from the General Fund for water supply emergencies in disadvantaged communities. During the latest drought, more than 2,500 domestic wells ran dry and nearly 150 small water systems requested emergency support. Many rural, disadvantaged communities still do not have reliable supplies, and these funds could provide emergency drinking water, extend water service lines, and repair groundwater wells.

Forests and wildfires: The budget calls for $415 million for programs to improve the health of forests and fight wildfires. Of this sum, $200 million will be sourced from the Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund (GGRF). This is consistent with a legislative requirement from last year to spend $1 billion from the GGRF over five years for forest health, fire prevention, and fuel reduction activities. These funds will largely be allocated to Cal Fire’s grant programs for forest management projects on private and federal forest lands. The remaining half of the $415 million in proposed spending will go toward upgrading firefighting equipment and increasing firefighting capacity.

Healthy soils: The budget allocates $18 million to the California Department of Food and Agriculture to expand the Healthy Soils Initiative—a $3 million increase from its 2018 budget. Funded by the state’s cap-and-trade revenues, the program incentivizes farmers to adopt sustainable practices and increase their soils’ capacity to sequester more carbon. Activities might include installing riparian forest buffer, composting, and planting cover crops and wind barriers. Such practices can also improve crop yields, drought and flood tolerance, and air and water quality. The funding is projected to enable the sequestration of 5.3 million tons of CO2 on 500,000 acres by 2030, which is equivalent to nearly 2% of California’s annual emissions in 2016.

The proposed budget will be revised by May—and ultimately finalized and passed by the legislature in June.

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