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Historic drought is backdrop for $7.5B water bond vote

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POSTED October 9, 2014 9:41 p.m.

FRESNO (AP) — Gov. Jerry Brown and lawmakers are hoping California’s worsening drought persuades voters to approve borrowing billions of dollars for new water projects, treatment systems and conservation measures.

The $7.5 billion water package to appear on the Nov. 4 ballot as Proposition 1 includes $2.7 billion for new reservoirs along with billions more for recycling water, conservation and groundwater cleanup. It also calls for shoring up levees in the Sacrament-San Joaquin Delta to lessen chances of a catastrophic flood.

The measure comes as California grapples with a third consecutive dry year and after Brown declared a drought emergency in January.

In August, both Democrats and Republicans voted nearly unanimously to put it on the ballot in a rare sign of bipartisan solidarity on the often thorny subject of water. Proposition 1 has won backing from agricultural and conservation groups.

Critics such as Zeke Grader, executive director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Association, doubt whether Proposition 1 goes far enough to update California’s aging water storage and delivery system.

“I think we need a bond act,” Grader said. “But we need a good bond act, not something that was sloppily put together.”

If it’s approved by voters, the state will issue $7.1 billion in new borrowing and redirect $425 million from past ballot propositions.

Many provisions in the measure are designed to increase the availability of water, including $2.7 billion — the largest portion of the bond — that would likely be spent on building two new reservoirs, the Sites Reservoir in Colusa County north of Sacramento and Temperance Flat northeast of Fresno.

Another $725 million would be spent on water recycling and treatment projects, with $900 million for cleaning up contaminated groundwater.

The opposition campaign — Californians Against More Debt, Misplaced Spending — argues that the measure would thrust the state deeper into debt for decades, while doing nothing to immediately address the ongoing drought. The billions spent will benefit corporate farms and would be better used on schools, roads and health care, the campaign backed by delta interests and some environmental groups argues.

Grader said he opposes the measure because he doesn’t believe the two proposed reservoirs will deliver enough water to make a significant difference, while taking water away from fish that rely on California rivers as habitat. Grader said the opposition will be outspent by supporters.

“It’s going to be an uphill battle, but we’re not going to sit by silently and let something bad go through,” he said.

In support, The Nature Conservancy’s director of external affairs and policy, Jay Ziegler, said the drought illustrates the need for long-term investment throughout the state’s water system. Ziegler said he believes voters recognize the need for the bond.

“It strikes a balance, trying to meet long-term water needs for people, the economy and environment,” he said.

Ziegler refuted claims that the bond money would automatically be spent on building new dams, saying the focus is likely to be on restoring the state’s depleting underground water storage instead. The California Water Commission, a seven-member body appointed by the governor and approved by the state Senate, will decide how to spend $2.7 billion for storage.

“I think voters are increasingly aware of the magnitude of this drought,” Ziegler said.

Projects that would be funded by the bond are years away from providing benefits, providing a cushion against future water shortages rather than immediate relief.

Not all the money is designated for bolstering water supplies. The second largest funding category sets aside $1.5 billion for ecosystems and watershed projects, while $395 million is available for flood management.

Repaying the water bond could cost more than $14 billion over 40 years, according to the state’s non-partisan Legislative Analyst’s Office.

The math doesn’t pencil out, said Republican Assemblyman Tim Donnelly, one of just two state lawmakers who opposed putting it on the ballot.

“Should the infrastructure last longer than the payments?” he said.

Donnelly said he is “absolutely” in favor of building more reservoirs but said there are no guarantees the bond will result in the two proposed dams.

Proposition 1 prohibits the bond money from contributing to a contentious proposal backed by Gov. Brown to build a pair of 35-mile-long, freeway-size water tunnels beneath the delta to divert water from the Sacramento River to Central Valley farmers and to Southern California.

The measure replaces an $11.1 billion water bond passed by the Legislature in 2009. It never went to the ballot amid fears that it was too costly and was filled with too many pet projects to gain voter approval.

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