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California’s Proposed Budget Reveals Water, Climate Priorities

A recently released state budget proposal uses a science-based approach to allocating funds and includes money for water systems in disadvantaged communities, endangered species, wildfire fighting and conservation.

Written by Alastair Bland Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
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A firefighting helicopter makes a water drop on a flare-up of the Blue Cut Fire along Interstate 15 in the Cajon Pass in 2016. California’s proposed 2018–19 budget gives the Department of Forestry and Fire Protection $2.3 billion, which includes money for replacing and upgrading firefighting aircraft and vehicles.Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

For California governor Jerry Brown and his administration, 2017 was a water year to remember, and one that would figure into the drafting of the state’s 2018-19 budget, which was released early this month. The $190 billion proposed spending plan names California’s drought and the “extreme natural events of 2017” as determining factors in how the cash was divvied up.

The budget, released just days after President Donald Trump mocked the science of climate change on Twitter, specifically outlines a science-based approach to allocating funds, especially with an eye toward the planet’s increasing temperatures and rising sea level.

The 177-page document gives $9.8 billion to California’s Natural Resources Agency in the next fiscal year. The agency consists of 26 departments, commissions, conservancies and boards tasked with protecting and managing the state’s woodlands, open space, coastline, wildlife and water.

Of that money, $4.7 million will go toward a new program of aiding communities in both “short-term and long-term costs of obtaining access to safe and affordable drinking water.” This would achieve the goals of Senate Bill 623, a bill introduced into the 2016–17 legislative session but which is currently stalled in the Senate.

“That the governor himself has put his name on this issue is huge,” said Jonathan Nelson, policy director with the Community Water Center, which advocates for clean drinking water. “We aren’t just pushing this up the hill anymore.”

Nelson, who says more than 1 million Californians lack access to clean drinking water, notes that the budget doesn’t merely dedicate money toward the cause but actually initiates what he believes will become a long-term program.

“This will be the governor’s legacy,” Nelson said.

The budget includes $4 billion that will be made available for parks, water resources and recreation if voters pass Senate Bill 5, a bond measure heading to the ballot in June. SB 5 allocates $140 million to groundwater protection and recharge strategies, and another $98 million to multibenefit flood protection strategies – including floodplain restoration. The bond measure would provide another $63 million for safe drinking water projects.

The California Department of Fish and Wildlife will receive $610 million in the coming fiscal year. Focal areas for the department will include “conservation efforts on land, in rivers and streams, and in the ocean to benefit iconic species like salmon.” The budget also calls for “increasing efforts to recover key declining and endangered species.” Whether this language will benefit the Delta smelt remains to be seen. Fish and Wildlife biologists found just two of the critically endangered small fish, emblematic of water conflicts, during four months of fish-counting surveys last fall – the lowest count on record for the species.

Donna Johnson, a 72-year-old resident of East Porterville, a small town at the eastern edge of the Central Valley, has been delivering water on an almost daily basis to many of her fellow townsfolk who had run out of water. California’s proposed budget will allocate funds to help find long-term solutions to water issues in disadvantaged communities. (Citizens of the Planet/Education Images/UIG via Getty Images)

The Department of Forestry and Fire Protection received a $2.3 billion block of the budget, with line items devoted to replacing and upgrading firefighting aircraft and vehicles and supporting inmate firefighting programs. The budget looks ahead by noting that 2017’s devastating wildfires “were intensified by critically dry conditions that are likely to worsen in coming years.”

California’s budget states it will be “Basing Actions in Science,” especially as it assesses spending needs for climate change mitigation and adaptation. According to the plan, the “best available scientific understanding of how climate change is impacting the state … will serve as the foundation for how state agencies, local governments and the public respond to forecasted climate change impacts.” This language outlines the divergent perspectives on science and global warming of the Brown administration and the nation’s science-skeptic president, who recently suggested in a tweet that an East Coast cold snap proved climate change is an unfounded theory.

The budget recounts the impacts of the state’s five-year drought, the abrupt return of rainfall last winter, the crisis at Oroville Dam, the state’s long-term groundwater deficit, the widespread dying of California’s forests, record-torching heatwaves and destructive wildfires.

“In 2017, the most severe drought in California’s recorded history was halted by one of the wettest seasons on record, causing significant flood-related damage,” the document states. “Between October and December, the combination of increased fuel-loading vegetation from the winter storms, millions of dead trees and extreme winds triggered the most destructive wildfires in the state’s history.”

Mention of the Delta tunnels, which Brown has fervently promoted for years, was conspicuously absent from the budget, even though the state quietly unveiled interest in building a single-tube version of the project, called California WaterFix, on Friday, January 12.

Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla, executive director of the group Restore the Delta, feels the omission is deceptive and the budget itself not entirely representative of the Brown administration’s priorities.

“The fact that there’s no money for California WaterFix in the budget doesn’t mean that ratepayers and taxpayers in California aren’t being affected by this,” she said.

The state auditor reported in October that the Department of Water Resources was guarding a pool of $286 million that it planned to use, in part, to fund development of the WaterFix project.

“I’m frustrated because I’m not seeing legislative oversight coming out of this audit,” said Barrigan-Parrilla. “The auditor knows that money is there. Why isn’t it accounted for in the budget?”

Lisa Lien-Mager, a spokeswoman for the California Natural Resources Agency, says construction costs of the WaterFix project “will be paid by the local public water agencies that participate in the project” and will not come from budget funds.

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