By Dan Bacher
Towns from Freeport to Isleton are resting a little easier after Governor Gavin Newsom, Senate President pro Tempore Toni G. Atkins and Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon reached an agreement on the 2023-24 state budget without including trailer bill language for the 45 mile-long Delta Tunnel project.
“In the face of continued global economic uncertainty, this budget increases our fiscal discipline by growing our budget reserves to a record $38 billion, while preserving historic investments in public education, health care, climate, and public safety,” Newsom said in a statement at the end of June. “We’ve attached new accountability measures for transit and homelessness investments. And we are accelerating our global leadership on climate by fast-tracking the clean energy projects that will create cleaner air for generations to come.”
Atkins also sounded an optimistic note.
“We started our budget process this time around with tough economic challenges, but one overarching goal: to protect California’s progress,” the President pro noted. “This budget does exactly that — it allows us to close the budget gap, make targeted new investments, and provide services and resources for Californians and our communities without cuts to core programs or dipping into our reserves, and in fact builds those reserves.”
But for communities in Sacramento, Yolo and San Joaquin counties, the big news was that Newsom’s attempt to downgrade the California Environmental Quality Act and other legal protections, in a specific way that would help the controversial Delta Tunnel get built, as part of the grand budget deal, was eventually dropped.
Attorney Osha Meserve, a long-time legal opponent of the Delta Tunnel project, observed that the language in the final trailer bill language “appears to eliminate any benefit to the Delta Tunnel.”
“The fact that the governor would try to change environmental laws to expedite the construction of the Delta Tunnel shows what a loser project it,” Meserve commented.
An observer with a more direct stake is Gia Moreno, a Chicana and Native American grassroots activist from Hood, the Delta town that sits at ground zero for the project’s construction.
“I was really concerned about Newsom’s attempt to jam the trailer bills through and to take out environmental protections in regard to the tunnel, and also other future projects, because we don’t know what the consequences will be in the future,” said Moreno, who was on the Delta Conveyance Authority Stakeholder Engagement Committee before it was disbanded. “It looks very much like Governor Newsom, the Delta Conveyance Authority and DWR are not looking to the future, but are instead just looking at their immediate wants.”
She added, “It appears like they’re rushing the project through and are winging it because when we ask them questions about the consequences of the project on communities like Hood, they don’t always have answers.”
Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla, Executive Director of Restore the Delta, had also been watching the legislative action unfold.
“We are pleased the tunnel was removed from the Design and Build trailer bill, and that the trailer bill for changing voting quorums for the Delta Stewardship Council was dropped,” Barrigan-Parrilla noted. “However, this play by the Governor makes it clear that he and DWR will seek to change any rules to move the tunnel forward while excluding the region … It is time for him and DWR to drop the project and to get busy on meaningful reforms and projects to restore the Delta and secure California’s water future.”
Restore the Delta also thanked Senator Susan Eggman and Assemblyman Carlos Villapudua for their hard work on removing the tunnel language from Governor Newsom’s trailer bills.
Scientist Deirdre Des Jardins of California Water Research was glad the language for the trailer bills exempts the Delta Tunnel from the streamlining provision. However, Des Jardins noted that the streamlining provision still do apply to the Proposition 1 funded projects and many infrastructure projects.
“Oxford researcher Bent Flyvbjerg has found that infrastructure projects have predictable management biases, including optimism bias, overconfidence bias, and strategic misrepresentation,” Des Jardins pointed out. “If you like the High-Speed Rail project, then you’ll love the infrastructure projects built with the Governor’s streamlining.”
The Delta Conveyance Project would divert water from the Sacramento River in the North Delta at Hood before it flows through the Delta to export to agribusiness operations in the San Joaquin Valley and Southern California water agencies. Independent scientists, tribal leaders and fish advocates say the construction of the underground tunnel would drive already imperiled populations of salmon, steelhead and other fish species closer to extinction. The project would also call for the seizure of numerous farmers’ land while potentially killing the economies of the Delta’s historic legacy towns.
Tribes and conservationists are now evaluating the final language for the trailer bills, including two new ones, and how they will impact other projects, endangered species and the environment.
The agreement just reached includes support for the associated budget trailer and the following policy bills:
- AB 122 – Joshua Tree (Committee on Budget)
- AB 124 – Green Bank and Energy (Committee on Budget)
- AB 126 – Clean transportation (Reyes)
- SB 145 – Caltrans Advanced Mitigation and I-15 Wildlife Crossings (Newman)
- SB 146 – Progressive Design Build, Job Order Contracting, NEPA Assignment (Gonzalez and Friedman)
- SB 147 – Fully Protected Species (Ashby)
- SB 149 – Expedited Judicial Review, Administrative Record Reform (Caballero and Becker)
- SB 150 – Equity (Durazo, Smallwood Cuevas, Gonzalez, Cortese, and L. Rivas)
Many political insiders believe that Governor Newsom attempted to ram through his last-minute legislative language to expedite the construction of the Delta Tunnel and other water and infrastructure projects in order to with favor with large agribusiness, the building industry, the real estate lobby and other big money donors to his campaign. Politicos who believe this note that Stewart and Lynda Resnick, billionaire agribusiness tycoons and major promoters of the Delta Tunnel and increased water pumping from Delta, have donated a total of $431,600 to Governor Gavin Newsom since 2018, including $250,000 to Stop The Republican Recall Of Governor Newsom and $64,800 to Newsom For California Governor 2022.
Newsom received a total of $755,198 in donations from agribusiness in the 2018 election cycle, based on the data from www.followthemoney.org. That figure includes a combined $116,800 from Stewart and Lynda Resnick and $58,400 from E.J. Gallo, combined with $579,998 in the agriculture donations category.