State senators, public interest groups testify against Governor's Plan to weaken environmental laws

By Dan Bacher | 

On June 8, the California Senate Natural Resources and Water Committee held a 3-hour informational hearing about the proposed Infrastructure proposals gutting CEQA (California Environmental Quality Act) and other environmental laws that Governor Gavin Newsom wants to include as a package of trailer bills attached to the state budget that must be completed by June 15.  

The proposals have spurred outrage from conservation, environmental justice and fishing groups, along with opposition from both Democratic and Republican legislators. On June 3, over 100 organizations sent a letter to Newsom urging him not to weaken CEQA and other environmental laws.

Administration officials at the hearing and previous hearings claimed the last minute proposals were urgent, requiring the Legislature to act upon them before June 15. They claimed that California “will risk funding for critical infrastructure like safe drinking water and clean energy.”

“The proposals that the Governor brings forward, we don’t bring forward lightly into the budget process but because we have to take action now,” said California Natural Resources Secretary Wade Crowfoot. “It is reasonable for us to expect that the more punishing drought is just around the corner or the more damaging flood or the more destructive wildfire. From our perspective, this isn’t the case of reforming our systems over years or months, the urgency we bring to this is weeks.”

“Whether it’s housing, whether it’s transportation, whether it’s public works, whether it’s critical water infrastructure, whether it’s renewable energy - almost all of that is going to run through our department for some permitting purpose,” said California Department of Fish and Wildlife Director Chuck Bonham. “Every day we delay permitting renewable energy projects is compounding our ability to achieve our goals.”    

Administration officials and bill proponents also claimed that the legislative package would help create hundreds of thousands of jobs.

“Over the next decade the state will have the opportunity to invest $180 billion over the next 10-years and create as many as 400,000 jobs across the state – a level of construction and investment not seen since the Governor Pat Brown era,” said Gayle Miller, Senior Counselor to the Governor on Infrastructure and Clean Energy Finance “These bills will in fact make a difference as to the timing and delivery of projects—we have seen the broadband planning and delivery decrease from 33 to 11 months by implementing many of the proposals you will see here today.”  

However, legislators and representatives of a large coalition of environmental justice, conservation and public interest groups slammed the attempt to avoid the normal legislation process under the guise of “urgency” and “creating jobs.”

“The Governor’s strategy would avoid regular legislative process,” according to Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla, Executive Director of Restore the Delta, in a press statement. “Advocates for a healthy Bay-Delta have serious concerns about this attempt to jam through massive legal changes to permitting and public oversight of proposals like the Delta Conveyance Project (Delta tunnel),” 

Most of the Senators and all of the representatives of public interest groups that testified opposed the Governor’s package of budget trailer bills, while representatives of the water contractors and corporate agribusiness groups, construction trade unions and the building industry argued in favor of the trailer bills.

During the hearing, State Senator Brian Dahle emphasized that the future of Californians is on the line “for the environment, our businesses, and future generations.”

"We've set goals without a plan,” he testified. “We should never do policy based on money in a pot. We are setting ourselves for failure when we don’t include the public and we don’t have a plan for where we want to go. We cannot get this wrong."

State Senator Susan Eggman expressed extreme disappointment about the Governor's infrastructure proposals. She reminded the committee of the cost of the Delta tunnel and reminded colleagues that the State Water Board needs to finish the Bay-Delta Plan before permitting the Delta tunnel. 

"It's disrespectful to all the work we've done to participate in the process. The tunnel will have a huge impact on Delta residents and the flyway for birds and animals,” she stated.

State Senator Mike McGuire said that there's "no way in hell" he could support the trailer bill to ram through the Delta Tunnel project without citizen and judicial oversight. 

State Senator Monique Limón said it's starting to feel like we're being “jammed” by design regarding Newsom's trailer bills. 

“These changes will be very hard on environmental justice communities, especially when their voices can go unheard, or silenced. Providing funding to impacted communities is key, but so is mitigating these impacts in the first place,” she stated.

State Senator Alex Padilla said he agreed that the process to build the Delta tunnel by reducing CEQA review is being jammed by design. He adds that the cost for expediency should never be the cost of our legislative process. 

"We shouldn't accept the premise here that we're incapable of acting. It’s more than disrespectful,” he commented.   

Artie Valencia, Restore the Delta, explained that Restore the Delta has advocated for the EIR and EIS to include water, air, and climate impacts but the document still falls short on these. 

“Do right by environmental justice communities who already deal with past negligence when it comes to environmental review,” Valencia said. “The Delta Conveyance project will not solve drought, nor does it have any environmental justice mitigation for water, air, or climate impacts embedded into its plan or current environmental impact reports.”

Barry Nelson, Golden Gate Salmon Association, highlighted the shutdown of salmon fishing on the ocean and rivers in California this year. He said there is a desperate need to protect our salmon runs and waterways — and urged the Senate committee to reject the trailer bills. 

Susan Jordan, California Coastal Protection Network, agreed with Senator Alex Padilla these changes are being jammed, and that it is deliberate. She said they will have major impacts on marginalized communities, and they were not consulted.

“This is a pandora's box and these proposals are completely inappropriate and must be rejected,” she urged.

Doug Obegi, NRDC, testified that this package of trailer bills that propose significant changes to environmental laws don't advance climate energy projects and instead focus solely on water projects. Besides, he noted that the trailer bills don't seem to speed up permitting for these water projects anyway.

He said NRDC opposes the current iteration of the Delta tunnel project as it impacts fishing communities, Harmful Algal Blooms, Native American Tribes and more. Obegi noted that the Delta Reform Act requires the Council to have a full council to look at plans for 38 million people. 

He reminded the legislature that five Delta Counties filed a lawsuit against the tunnel based on protection for Sandhill Cranes, which they are now trying to delist with a protected species trailer bill. These birds are an economic driver for the Delta region. 

He added that the Delta Conveyance project has huge GHG issues and impacts. “These five infrastructure bills weaken environmental protections and limits legislative processes,” he stated.

Kim Delfino, Earth Advocacy, spoke on how the admin’s proposals poses risk for fully protected species. She asked why there is a dual standard for species on and not on the Fully Protected Species List.

Also, she said that if the legislature is going to act on this proposal, they need to put it into statute that the state will construct wildlife crossings before or during construction. 

Finally, here is this journalist’s testimony at the hearing (I was allowed 30 seconds to speak):

"I strongly oppose the trailer bill package the Governor is trying to jam through the Legislature, particularly the provisions regarding CEQA and the Delta Tunnel. Salmon fishing is closed on the ocean in California and in California rivers this year due to the collapse of salmon populations on the Sacramento and Klamath rivers that was caused by terrible state and federal water and fishery management during a drought. Eviscerating CEQA and other environmental laws, as Governor Newsom plans to do, will only make the dire situation with salmon and other fish populations and the Tribal, recreational and commercial fishing communities that depend upon them even worse." 

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