Democrats reject Republican proposal to speed reservoir reviews

Democrats reject Republican proposal to speed reservoir reviews
Dead almond trees were laid on the steps of the Capitol in Sacramento as Republican lawmakers, amid the drought, urged California to build new reservoirs as soon as possible. Their proposal for an expedited environmental review was rejected by an Assembly committee. (Chris Megerian / Los Angeles Times)

A Republican proposal to expedite the construction of new reservoirs stalled in an Assembly committee on Monday, just hours after a rally on the Capitol steps in support of the legislation.

The bill, AB 311, would have streamlined environmental reviews of water storage projects. It was opposed by environmentalists and Democrats.

Republicans touted the proposal during a news conference with farmers, comparing it with legislation that helped jump-start construction for a new Sacramento Kings arena.

"If it's good enough for a sports arena, it's darn good enough for projects that will increase water supply for Californians," said Assembly Republican Leader Kristin Olsen of Modesto.

But Democrats said the previous legislation included mitigating factors, such as requirements that the arena meet higher environmental standards.

"It's not good policy to shortcut environmental review and give preferential treatment in the courts to water storage projects," said a statement from Assemblyman Das Williams (D-Santa Barbara), chairman of the natural resources committee that rejected the proposal.

Funding for water storage was included in the $7.5-billion water bond approved by voters in November. The lack of new reservoirs has been a major criticism from Republicans and farmers, who say the state missed opportunities to store water before the drought began four years ago.

"The priority isn't there," said Gary Merlo, a manager with his family's Chico-based farming company.

Supporters are eyeing two spots for potential construction -- Sites Reservoir in the Sacramento Valley and Temperance Flat Dam on the San Joaquin River.

Gov. Jerry Brown said he hasn't committed to any particular plan.

"We're going to have a number of sites that will be in contention," he told reporters earlier this month during an event in Colusa.

Follow @chrismegerian on Twitter for more updates from Sacramento.