California voters on Tuesday rejected a water bond for the first time in almost 30 years, disregarding pleas from its backers that the money would fix crumbling infrastructure, bring clean drinking water to disadvantaged communities and kick-start badly needed environmental restoration projects.
As of Thursday’s tally, 54 percent of voters had rejected the $8.9 billion Proposition 3 that promised funds to help repair Oroville Dam and aid Central Valley farmers facing groundwater problems, among a list of other expenditures.
The failure is notable: The last time voters rejected a water bond was 1990. Since then, nine water bond measures have passed.
So why did this bond campaign go down in flames, when so many others in the drought-prone state have sailed through?
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“I have no idea,” said Jerry Meral, the veteran water-policy advocate who drafted the initiative. “If I did, we would have fixed it before the election was happening. It really is kind of a mystery because it really was much like previous water bonds: safe drinking water, water supply and environmental elements and so on. It’s hard to figure out.”
Foes called Proposition 3 a grab bag of special interest projects for which farmers and water users should be paying — not taxpayers. With its nearly $9 billion price tag, Proposition 3 was the largest bond measure on the ballot in decades.
Unlike most other water bonds, Proposition 3 funds wouldn’t have been allocated through the state budgeting process. Instead, money would have been paid as grants directly to the farms and other groups that would have spent it. That troubled Proposition 3’s critics who said it lacked accountability.
“The measure reflected a classic pay-to-play bond measure scheme,” the Sierra Club of California said Wednesday in a statement. “To attract wealthy investors ... the bond’s developers included in the measure billions of dollars worth of projects that would allow those investors to use taxpayer funds for projects they would otherwise have to pay for themselves.”
Those arguments might have been too complex for the average voter to grasp, said University of California San Diego political scientist Thad Kousser.
Instead, Kousser said he suspects the reason the bond failed was because voters in 2014 and in June passed water-related bonds.
Plus, voters this election agreed to keep higher gas taxes, and they also passed bonds for children hospitals, homeless people and affordable housing.
“I think there was bond fatigue here,” Kousser said. “And let’s face it, a dam isn’t as sympathetic as a veteran, a sick child and a homeless person. .... When voters are voting to continue to tax themselves for gas use, voting for three other bonds, and then they see the big price tag of this, I think voters just balked at that price tag.”
Asked Wednesday why he thought the bond failed, Gov. Jerry Brown offered a similar assessment.
“Hard to say,” Brown said. “It might be there was so many bonds.”
Brown, who championed the 2014 Proposition 1 water bond, declined to say how he voted on the initiative.
Money may have also been a factor. Farming groups and others had donated nearly $5 million to its campaign war chest, but in an email to bond supporters, Meral said the campaign lacked money to buy TV ads, and “memory of the drought has faded, so water was not considered a high priority.”
The bond would have allocated $750 million to repair the Friant-Kern Canal in the eastern San Joaquin Valley, which is sinking because farmers in the area have pumped so much groundwater it’s caused the region’s floor to collapse several feet. The failing canal is losing its ability to supply water to more than 300,000 acres of crops. The bond also would have paid more than $200 million for repairs and other work associated with the Oroville Dam crisis in 2017.
Proposition 3 also would have provided more than $1 billion to help farmers comply with pending groundwater regulations. Around $3 billion would have gone to water quality improvements and fish and wildlife habitat projects across the state. Another $500 million would have gone to flood protection. Proposition 3 would have provided $500 million to clean up drinking water.
The loss of the drinking-water funds leaves a continuing shortage for poor communities with unsafe water supplies, especially since the state legislature this summer failed to approve a tax that would have helped clean up contamination, said Meral, Proposition 3’s author.
“They haven’t solved safe drinking water,” Meral said.
A 2018 McClatchy investigation found that 360,000 Californians are served by water systems that violate state standards for nitrates, arsenic, uranium and other pollutants.
Jason Phillips, CEO of the Friant Water Authority said the bond’s failure affects more than the farmers who get water from the Friant-Kern Canal. Proposition 3’s defeat also hurts several disadvantaged communities in the area, he said.
“Not having this funding is going to bring (on) the water crisis that is pending a lot faster,” he said.
Phillips’ water district may end up asking the federal government to fund the canal repairs because state lawmakers are unlikely to pay, he said.
Jay Ziegler of the Nature Conservancy, which supported the bond, said the loss of $3 billion that the initiative would have set aside for water quality and habitat projects was a blow to California’s ecosystem restoration goals.
“I think there’s a very real and immediate impact that comes with this,” Ziegler said.