At the site of a future solar farm in the San Joaquin Valley in Stanislaus County, Governor Gavin Newsom on May 19 announced a legislative package and signed an executive order that would gut the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) to expedite the construction of the salmon-killing Delta Tunnel, Sites Reservoir and other controversial infrastructure projects, drawing condemnation from environmental groups.
CEQA is a landmark environmental law that the construction industry, Big Ag, Big Oil and other Big Money interests have been trying to eviscerate for years in order to shorten the contracting process for bridge and water projects, limit timelines for environmental litigation and simplify permitting for complicated developments in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta and elsewhere throughout California.
“The only way to achieve California’s world-leading climate goals is to build, build, build – faster,” claimed Newsom, with no sense of irony, on Endangered Species Day. “This proposal is the most ambitious effort to cut red tape and streamline regulations in half a century. It’s time to make the most out of taxpayer dollars and deliver results while creating hundreds of thousands of good jobs. Not since the Pat Brown era have we had the opportunity to invest in and rebuild this state to create the clean future Californians deserve.”
The Governor claimed the measures will “facilitate and streamline project approval” and completion to maximize California’s share of federal infrastructure dollars and expedite the implementation of projects that meet the state’s ambitious economic, climate, and social goals.”
The widely-criticized announcement by the Governor followed Thursday’s report urging “permitting reform” from Infrastructure Advisor to California, former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, and California Forward.
Together, these proposals could: “cut project timelines by more than three years, save businesses and state and local governments hundreds of millions of dollars, an reduce paperwork by hundreds of thousands of pages,” according to the Governor.
Also today, Governor Newsom signed an executive order to stand up a “strike team “to accelerate clean infrastructure projects across the state by implementing an all-of-government strategy for planning and development.
The “water-related projects” that would be subject to the new “streamlined process” include the:
(A) The Delta Conveyance Project.
(B) Water storage projects funded by the California Water Commission pursuant to Chapter 8 (commencing with Section 79750) of Division 26.7 of the Water Code.
(C) Projects for the production, distribution, or use of recycled water, as defined in Section 13050 of the Water Code.
(D) Contaminant and salt removal projects, including, but not limited to,
groundwater and seawater desalination and associated treatment, storage, conveyance, and distribution facilities.
(E) Canal or other conveyance maintenance and repair.
Advocates for fish, water and the environment responded with outrage over Newsom’s infrastructure plan.
“Governor Newsom does not respect the people in communities that need environmental protection,” said Restore the Delta’s Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla. “During the drought he used emergency rules to destroy Delta water quality and fisheries for tribes and fishing communities. He has now proposed in the May revised budget to subvert rules during flood further weakening water quality protections.”
“He raided funding from the San Joaquin Valley drinking water program budget to pay for needed flood protections, pitting region against region, disadvantaged community against disadvantaged community, as he did during the drought, pitting drinking water solutions against tribal and Delta environmental justice community needs for freshwater flows. He has pitted powerful special interest senior water rights holders against the needs of millions of Californians with the voluntary agreement process,” she observed.
“Now he wants to do away with standard environmental protections to build the Delta tunnel,” Barrigan-Parrilla continued.
“We have never been more disappointed in a California Governor than we are with Governor Newsom. We have repeatedly given him the benefit of the doubt. But sadly, he has no real water management plan to deal with extended drought and flood extremes to meet our climate reality, but instead is choosing to continue with failed ideas from the past to appease his big dollar agriculture donors, like Stewart Resnick,” she argued.
“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. It is time for him to walk the talk in California. Environmental justice is social justice. It is not flowery photo-ops with cool language, while doing the opposite by destroying protective standards by executive order and legislative fiat, while leaving everyday Californians to live with the destructive and polluting impacts,” she concluded.
Delta advocates also pointed out that one of the Governor's trailer bills strips the Greater sandhill crane of protected species status.
Delta United tweeted: “Ironically on Endangered Species Day, @CAgovernor proposes budget trailer bill stripping Greater sandhill cranes of fully protected species status to pave way for Delta Tunnel boondoggle. Sad day for our majestic cranes.”
Today’s announcement comes as the Newsom administration has presided over the unprecedented destruction of California fish populations at the service of Big Ag billionaires Lynda and Stewart Resnick, the largest orchard fruit growers in the world, and other powerful oligarchs.
Salmon are at their worst-ever crisis in California history at this time. Commercial and recreational salmon fishing is closed on the ocean in California and most of Oregon and in California rivers this year due to the collapse of salmon populations on the Sacramento and Klamath rivers that was caused by terrible water management during a drought.
The closure of salmon fishing on the ocean and rivers this year is just one example of the many fishery disasters caused by federal and state water project diversions from Central Valley reservoirs and rivers to enrich agribusiness contractors during recent drought years.
In one of many fish kills that took place in 2021, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife in 2022 published a monitoring report on 2021's spring Chinook salmon run on Butte Creek, a Sacramento River tributary, revealing that 91 percent of the adult fish died before spawning.
An estimated 19,773 out of the more than 21,580 fish total that returned to spawn in the Butte County stream perished before spawning. Only an estimated 1,807 adults survived to spawn in a year with a record return of fish.
Fish advocates have criticized the CDFW and other government agencies for failing to exert needed pressure on PG&E, the current owner of the hydroelectric project on Butte Creek, to release colder flows when they were needed to alleviate the massive fish kill.
Also in 2021, only 2.6 percent of endangered Sacramento River winter run Chinook juveniles survived, according to another CDFW report. These fish perished due to lethally warm water conditions caused by the failure of the federal government to release cold water to save the fish.
It gets worse! For the fifth year in a row, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife’s Fall 2022 Midwater Trawl Survey (FMWT) found zero Delta Smelt in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta.
The slender 2 to 3 inch fish that smells like cucumber was once the most abundant fish in the Delta. The smelt, found only in the Delta, is considered an indicator species that shows the relative health of the imperiled estuary.
The results of the survey were summed up and analyzed in a memorandum from James White, environmental scientist for the CDFW’s Bay Delta Region, to Erin Chappell, Regional Manager Bay Delta Region, on Dec. 29, 2022: Memorandum: 2022 FMWT Annual Fish Abundance and Distribution, California Department of Fish and Wildlife (759 KB).
“An absence of Delta Smelt catch in the FMWT is consistent among other surveys in the estuary,” White wrote. “The Enhanced Delta Smelt Monitoring (EDSM) survey of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) caught 3 Delta Smelt among 61 sampling days (between 9/6 and 12/15) comprised of 1,997 tows.”
Despite the release of many thousands of hatchery-raised Delta Smelt in Dec. 2021 and Jan., Feb. and Nov. 2022, no Delta smelt were found in any of the surveys.
“On Nov. 29- 30, 2022, the Experimental Release Technical Team released 12,942 marked adult Delta Smelt from culture into the Sacramento River near Rio Vista,” said White. “Neither FMWT nor EDSM caught these released Delta Smelt during December sampling.”
As scientists have documented for years, the Delta smelt, salmon and other fish populations have collapsed due to state and federal government actions and policies, including the export of massive quantities of Delta and Northern California to agribusiness oligarchs in the San Joaquin Valley, the mismanagement of water flows on Central Valley rivers and dams that benefit agribusiness at enormous expense to fish and people, and the pollution of Central Valley surface and ground water by agribusiness and the powerful oil and gas industry.
Rather than gutting CEQA to expedite destructive infrastructure projects like the Delta Tunnel and Sites Reservoir, the Governor and state leaders should instead work to strengthen and enforce landmark environmental laws like CEQA and CESA, the California Endangered Species Act.
The Delta Tunnel is based on the illogical premise that diverting more water out of the Sacramento River at the town of Hood would somehow “restore” the ecosystem while providing “water supply reliability.” However, I’m not aware of any project in U.S. or world history where diverting more water out of an estuary or river has resulted in the restoration of that estuary or river.
If you think the situation with salmon, Delta smelt and other species is bad now, the Delta Tunnel would only make it worse.