California water bond: The burning questions

Published: Saturday, Jul. 5, 2014 - 11:25 pm
Last Modified: Monday, Jul. 7, 2014 - 7:01 am

Having passed an on-time budget and concluded their committee hearings, California lawmakers have escaped Sacramento for a few weeks and retired to their districts for a July recess. When they return, much of the remaining legislative session will be devoted to trying to get a new water bond on the November ballot.

Water policy remains one of the most complex and potent topics to engulf the state Capitol. Here are some answers to the key questions in the water bond debate:

What happened to the other water bond they passed?

In the dwindling days of the 2009 legislative session, lawmakers and then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger compromised on an $11.1 billion bond offering. That bond has been delayed twice and is now scheduled for the November 2014 ballot.

But the general Sacramento consensus now holds that the $11.1 billion bond is a goner: too large and too full of specific allocations redolent of pork. Gov. Jerry Brown has told lawmakers he is concerned about the 2009 proposal passing muster, and lawmakers argue it would be dead on arrival.

So what are they doing instead?

Even if they don’t like the existing bond proposal, many lawmakers still want something on the ballot. A historically intense drought can be a big motivator.

Several lawmakers have floated proposals for a new bond. Only one has made it as far as a floor vote. That measure, a $10.5 billion proposal by Sen. Lois Wolk, D-Davis, could not garner enough votes to get out of the Senate. On the day lawmakers adjourned for recess, senators announced a diminished $7.5 billion proposal.

Assembly members are hammering out their own compromise measure. They were close to introducing one earlier last week but had to go back to the drawing board. It now looks more likely they will unveil a pact once legislators return from summer recess.

What does the governor think?

For much of this year Brown declined to weigh in on a water bond. But he finally broke that silence recently and has begun meeting with lawmakers. Since the governor would need to sign any new bond, his opinion matters.

In keeping with his image as California’s responsible fiscal steward – a reputation he would like to burnish in an election year – Brown has advocated a bond that is smaller than both the $11.1 billion measure and the alternative bonds lawmakers are floating. These numbers are more starting points for negotiations than hard ceilings, but Brown suggested a bond worth $6 billion overall, with $2 billion for storage.

What about Republicans?

Moving something to the ballot requires a two-thirds vote in both houses. While Democrats in the Assembly have a two-thirds margin, Senate Democrats need Republican support. For a water bond to advance out of the Senate, at least two Republicans must be on board. In the case of Wolk’s bond, that didn’t happen.

Republicans have been adamant about the need for more storage – ideally wanting about $3 billion worth. But when it comes to water, geographical divisions play a crucial role and can even supersede partisan lines. So those Republicans calling for more storage align with Central Valley Democrats saying the same.

Storage? What does that mean?

The term “surface storage” generally refers to big projects like dams and reservoirs. If California has more places to stash water in wet years, the thinking goes, it will be better equipped to survive the dry stretches. But storage could also encompass money to replenish or clean up supplies of groundwater, which California relies on more heavily in dry years.

Determining where storage dollars might go spurs fierce disputes over what types of projects could be eligible. Since all taxpayers are subsidizing them, bond-funded storage projects must carry broad public benefits.

Defining those benefits can be a problem. Bonds that list recreation as a benefit, for example, are a red flag for dam-averse environmentalists. As they note, you can’t take a boat out on groundwater.

Will a bond help with the drought?

One thing lawmakers can’t do is create more water. If rain is scarce and the Sierra snowpack is diminished, that means there’s less to go around. If big storage projects are advanced, it would still take years for construction to finish and yield results.

Other money could bolster access to drinking water. Proposals would offer grants to treat drinking water contaminated with nitrates or other chemicals, money for recycling and reusing wastewater, funding to repair water infrastructure in disadvantaged communities and support for capturing more stormwater.

What about the Delta tunnels? Will a bond pay for those?

This is a tricky one. Understanding the answer requires a brief explanation of the so-called “co-equal goals” of Brown’s Bay Delta Conservation Plan.

The centerpiece of Brown’s legacy water project would be a pair of massive water tunnels capable of funneling water to southern parts of the state without needing it to flow through the Delta. It’s very controversial. But the project isn’t just tunnels. It would also need to pay for sweeping environmental restoration to help the Delta’s teeming habitat, what’s known as “mitigation.”

That imperative of spending money on Delta habitat is affecting the water bond debate. None of the bonds would allocate money to build the tunnels. But they all offer money for the Delta. Senate President Pro Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, and others point to polling suggesting that any bond that is not “BDCP-neutral” will rally the opposition and falter before voters. Brown also believes a bond must be divorced from the tunnels.

Would a bond with money for the Delta ecosystem help Brown build the tunnels? Depends who you ask. For now, Delta advocates and environmentalists believe Wolk’s bond is the most tunnel-neutral option. But some observers believe that Delta plan skeptics could frame any bond with Delta money as a boon to Brown’s tunnel dreams and hurt its chances for passage.

Are special interests involved?

Assuredly. With billions of dollars at stake, various interest groups have been making their priorities known to lawmakers. That includes environmentalists, agricultural interests, organizations like the Association of California Water Agencies, major urban water agencies like the Metropolitan Water District and prominent agricultural water providers like the Westlands Water District.

For the environmentalists, a key point of contention is what sort of projects a bond could fund. They don’t want to see preference given to new large-scale reservoirs, expressing skepticism that the new dams would be cost-effective and warning about environmental degradation.

Most pressing for many water districts and agencies is more money for storage. Their customers are thirsty, something they hope a bond can address. Since Brown’s tunnels have become bound up with the bond conversation, it’s worth noting that significant support for the Delta tunnels comes from exporters that would like to see a steadier flow of water.

When is the deadline?

The statutory deadline to get a new water bond on the ballot has come and gone (it was June 26). The Legislature can still waive various laws to put something before voters in November.

But elections are complex undertakings, and the civic machinery has already started whirring. The secretary of state’s office has begun assembling the voter guides that must go on public display by July 22 before being printed and mailed to voters. County election officials typically start ordering ballots to be printed in August. Those ballots have to be translated into nine other languages.

Lawmakers have options. Administrators are already allotting space for the $11.1 billion bond, so swapping out that language for a new bond would be simpler. If lawmakers take too long striking a new bond deal, they could end up having to print a second, separate voter guide. That would cost more money, potentially millions of dollars.

So the short answer is: there is no immutable deadline. But the longer lawmakers take, the more complicated and expensive it gets.

This story was corrected at 5:50 p.m. on July 7, 2014 to give the correct name of the Association of California Water Agencies.


Call Jeremy B. White, Bee Capitol Bureau, (916) 326-5543.

Read more articles by Jeremy B. White



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