By Jennifer Clary, California Program Manager
Earlier this week, the Governor and Legislature reached near unanimous agreement on a $7.54 billion water bond for the November 2014 ballot that responds to the state’s deepening drought conditions. This bond (now Proposition 1) replaces an extremely unpopular $11.14 billion bond that was placed on the ballot during the Schwarzenegger administration (2009). The public’s opportunity to vote on the 2009 bond measure was delayed by the Legislature twice (in 2010 and 2012) as polls repeatedly showed it lacked the support to pass.
Bond negotiations have been going on for more than a year. Early in the process, Clean Water Action rallied environmental allies and developed a unified list of priorities that any water financing bill must include. Specifically, our water bond position statement said that bond funding must:
We provided continuous and united input on the multiple water bond bills that were introduced throughout the legislative session. This bond achieves a significant portion of these objectives. Most importantly, more than a half-billion dollars will be allocated to projects that provide safe drinking water and affordable wastewater treatment to the most at-risk residents of California – including those that have lost their water supply in the current drought. This has been Clean Water Action’s top priority for the bond, because it will make a real difference to communities around the state that have few options for addressing their serious and urgent water challenges.
Other good parts of the bond include $1.9 billion in funding for alternative water supplies (including water recycling, groundwater management and cleanup, projects to capture and reuse stormwater and water conservation), $475 million to pay for already approved state projects (like removing dams on the Klamath river that compromise water quality, Salton Sea and San Joaquin River Restoration, and protections for Lake Tahoe), nearly $400 million for watershed protection and another $400 million for levee strengthening. Removing dams, fixing Delta levees, managing and cleaning up groundwater are programs that have been delayed for too long and must be moved forward with urgency to preserve and protect water quality and ensure a reliable drinking water supply for millions of residents.
Are there things we don’t like in the bond? Absolutely – more than one-third of the bond ($2.7 billion) is allocated to Central Valley storage projects that could include construction of environmentally destructive dams. However, storage dollars could also go to projects that recharge the Valley’s dangerously overdrafted groundwater basins. The two most likely projects slated for enhancing surface water storage, enhancing the Friant Dam and Temperance Flat reservoir, will be extremely expensive compared to groundwater recharge. These projects will be subject to years of environmental review and litigation. This gives us plenty of time to work to stop the reservoir expansions and support more sensible solutions, like groundwater recharge.
We supported this bond for a number of reasons. First, the bond already on the ballot was terrible. It contained $3 billion for storage as well as more than $2 billion to enable the construction of the peripheral tunnels to move water through the Central Valley to Southern California. That bond also provided virtually no money for safe drinking water and wastewater treatment facilities in communities that need that funding desperately.
Secondly, moderates and conservatives in the Legislature felt the new bond contained everything they wanted, and saw little point in compromise. Because placing a bond on the ballot requires a 2/3 vote of the Legislature, their support was essential to removing the bad bond from the ballot. Fortunately legislators, particularly Delta representatives like Senator Lois Wolk and Assembly member Susan Eggman, were able to remove legislative language that would have facilitated the tunnels. They were also able to add controls to the remaining funding to ensure that Delta restoration funded by bond dollars is subject to local review.
The price of this bond was a storage chapter that may or may not result in the construction of dams – but the result was a bond that is the right size for California’s budget. The new bond helps us address serious problems arising from the continuing drought and also allows local agencies to invest in projects that will help us weather the next drought. Rest assured, while Clean Water Action supports this bond for all the good things it contains, we will continue to fight the construction of dams and tunnels and ensure less expensive and more-ecosystem friendly measures are implemented.