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Newsom-expedited reservoir project passes major legal hurdle under new authority

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(The Center Square) – One hundred forty-eight days after California Governor Gavin Newsom used new executive authority to expedite infrastructure projects, a court cleared a major hurdle to construction of California’s first major reservoir in decades.

In 2023, California passed State Bill 149, which granted the governor the authority to require courts to rule on projects’ environmental impact reports within 270 days. Under the California Environmental Quality Act, EIR cases can be used to hold up projects nearly indefinitely if courts continue to find issues with a project’s EIR.

California has not built a reservoir with more than one million gallons of capacity since 1978; the Sites Reservoir project, which was funded by 2014’s Proposition 1, will hold up to 1.5 million acre-feet of water, or enough to supply three million households for a year. This project would increase the region’s water storage capacity by 15% at a cost of approximately $4 billion, of which up to $875 million may be covered by Prop. 1.

“California needs more water storage, and we have no time to waste – projects like the Sites Reservoir will capture rain and snow runoff to supply millions of homes with clean drinking water,” Newsom said in a statement. We’re approaching this work with urgency, everything from water storage to clean energy and transportation projects.”

The project faced years of delays from lawsuits by environmental groups claiming the reservoir would harm the ecosystem, especially fish. A judge’s ruling in favor of the project found the EIR was not lacking in the manner described by plaintiffs and that the project could continue to move forward. Not a single Prop. 1 water storage project has been completed, in part due to CEQA-based EIR challenges. After two years of sufficient rainfall, the state is no longer in a drought, but a shortage of water storage has left most of this rain going to the sea and water recipients are projected to be given just 40% of their allocations.

Next, Sites must secure water rights to the project, which is estimated to be completed in 2025. Sites then expects to begin construction some time in 2026.

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