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California water agency gets scolded: Speed up spending billions on new reservoirs

 
 

With California facing another potential drought, legislators demanded Wednesday that a state agency release $2.7 billion in bond funding for dams, reservoirs and other water storage projects.

Assembly Republican Leader Brian Dahle, pulling a child’s red wagon, arrived at a meeting of the California Water Commission with a stack of petitions with 4,000 signatures supporting the two largest reservoir projects seeking bond money: Sites Reservoir north of Sacramento and Temperance Flat in the San Joaquin Valley. “Farmers like myself are concerned about the shortage of water – we’re seeing another drought cycle,” he told the commission.

The commission, which is in charge of doling out $2.7 billion in Proposition 1 bond money approved by voters in 2014, has come under attack in recent weeks. In January, the its staff issued a preliminary determination that the 11 projects under consideration aren’t eligible for nearly as much funding as they’d like.

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Lawmakers and others accused the commission of effectively thwarting the will of the voters.

“Many people agree these projects make a lot of sense ... but still received low scores (from the commission’s staff),” said Assemblyman James Gallagher, R-Yuba City. “There’s very clearly a mandate that this money be spent.”

Commission officials insisted that they’re ready to fund eligible projects but need more information from project proponents.

“The commission is anxious to get the money out the door,” said chairman Armando Quintero. The commission expects to make final decisions in July.

Under Proposition 1, the commission can’t award funding for projects that merely store water for individual water agencies; it can only fund “public benefits,” with an emphasis on eco-system improvements that help the troubled Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

The preliminary evaluation by the commission staff was deflating to many reservoir proponents. Temperance Flat, a $2.6 billion reservoir seeking $1 billion in Proposition 1 assistance, was deemed ineligible for any money. Sites Reservoir, a $5 billion project seeking $1.6 billion, was considered eligible for only $660 million.

Jim Watson, manager of the Sites Joint Powers Authority, said he’s confident the commission will ultimately fund Sites more generously. “Part of it is us better telling the story,” he said. “I know they’re all motivated to fulfill the mandate of Prop 1.”

Not everyone was urging the commission to fund new dams and reservoirs. Environmentalists such as Rachel Zwillinger, of Defenders of Wildlife, said some projects would hurt the environment and don’t deserve funding.

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