Gov. Gavin Newsom and legislative Democrats had the opportunity to alleviate the state’s twin crises of drought and wildfire by including resources for ongoing funding, prescribed burning and water storage in this year’s budget. These solutions are not new, but they require political will. In light of the haunting memories of past catastrophic wildfires, this year’s budget will miss an opportunity.
Sacramento failed to learn from its past mistakes. The proposed budget provides $258 million – a reduction from a proposed $1 billion – for wildfire prevention and response efforts and $3 billion for drought, but lacks any water storage commitment. Critical details are lacking, with discussions ongoing.
California is facing what experts say may be the worst drought conditions in the state’s history. Record heat waves. Dry forests. Water levels at the state’s largest reservoirs are alarmingly low. All culminating in a perfect storm for catastrophic wildfires.
California’s largest reservoir – Shasta Lake – is below 40% capacity. The state’s largest supplier to the State Water Project, Lake Oroville, is at a mere 33%, so low that its hydroelectric power plant likely will be forced to shut down for the first time since it opened in 1967.
Wildfires are a natural part of California’s landscape. Recent fire seasons, however, have started earlier and ended later, with more destruction each year. Since June 1, the state’s Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, CalFire, has fought 42 wildfires. Nine are still active. And that does not take into account wildfires battled by local firefighters.
I witnessed our governor promise in October 2019 that the state would do everything it could to mitigate catastrophic wildfires. This included “identifying and accelerating implementation of 35 priority fuel reduction projects to protect over 200 of California’s most at-risk communities,” and “redirecting up to 100 California National Guard personnel to create fuel reduction and fire suppression crews that are available to CalFire to undertake priority projects.”
In 2014, voters overwhelmingly approved $2.75 billion of the $7 billion bond measure, Proposition 1, to fund water infrastructure projects, including preparation for the next drought. Yet here we are, seven years later, with little to show in return.
The reality is: Water is running out for already disadvantaged communities and critical industries such as agriculture, threatening our food supply and jobs.
The delayed Sites Reservoir, for example, is an off-river reservoir that could capture excess water from storms. It would increase California’s water supply by 15%. In dry years, Sites would pump an additional 250,000 acre-feet or more of cold water to help the ecosystem, improve water quality and recharge groundwater.
Yet not a drop of water storage has been added as Sites, and other storage projects are waiting for permit approvals.
Numerous water infrastructure projects in the Central Valley, such as the Friant-Kern Canal, could have prepared our region for drought but lacked adequate funding.
Almost three years ago, Californians saw one of the most horrific wildfires in our state’s history, with 85 lives lost. Thousands of homes and businesses in the Butte County town of Paradise burned to rubble. With a bipartisan group of state legislators, I witnessed firsthand an entire community nearly destroyed – a life-changing experience.
As drought and wildfire conditions accelerate at unprecedented rates, Californians are left watching the two trains collide. Sacramento could have used this year’s healthy budget to take action to prevent future disasters. But our elected officials did not. The impacts of wildfire and drought are no longer confined to select regions of California. Californians across the state need to be vocal, and the time is now. We have to get the basics right in the state budget.
California should not have to endure another heartbreaking wildfire season or drought before the governor and legislative Democrats take action.
Assemblymember Vince Fong, a Republican from Bakersfield, represents the 34th District and is vice chair of the budget committee.