Capitol Alert

Oroville dam repairs would benefit from multibillion-dollar ballot measure

Here's what Oroville Dam spillway repair work looks like as we pass mid-July

Recovery efforts continue on the Lake Oroville spillways project, with concrete being placed on the lower chute of the main spillway, and excavation and rock cleaning to prepare the spillway's foundation, July 18, 2017.
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Recovery efforts continue on the Lake Oroville spillways project, with concrete being placed on the lower chute of the main spillway, and excavation and rock cleaning to prepare the spillway's foundation, July 18, 2017.

With California’s drought fresh on voters’ minds, a longtime water activist is asking their approval for a veritable wish list of water and other environmental projects costing billions – from fixing Oroville Dam’s cratered spillway to improving the watershed of the Tijuana River.

As is the case with many borrowing measures that go before voters, interests that stand to benefit from some of the projects will be asked to underwrite campaign costs – a situation one expert said poses an “inherent conflict.”

The $8.4 billion proposal is the product of Gerald Meral, the former deputy secretary of the state Natural Resources Agency. He said the proposal would build upon Proposition 1, the $7.4 billion water bond passed by voters in 2014, and help carry out the California Water Plan, a blueprint for developing and managing the state’s water supplies.

“I think it would be quite possible to pass a water bond in 2018,” Meral said. “The drought has really sensitized people to water issues.”

The measure, which needs 365,880 valid voter signatures to get on the November 2018 ballot, would allocate money to a range of projects. Among them:

▪ $200 million to protect, restore and improve Sierra Nevada watersheds and $60 million to protect and restore the watersheds of the Lake Tahoe Basin.

▪ $170 million for projects along river parkways, with another $30 million dedicated to the Lower American River Conservancy.

▪ $750 million for water quality and drinking water projects, including $250 million for wastewater projects and $60 million for private drinking water or wastewater systems.

▪ $400 million for desalination projects.

▪ $300 million for incentive payments to encourage property owners to convert lawns and other watered landscape to drought-tolerant plants.

▪ $150 million to reduce flood risk in the Central Valley.

The near-collapse of the spillway at Lake Oroville triggered a massive government response. State officials believe the federal government or the agencies that receive water from the lake will cover the cost. That is not assured, though, and the state might have to contribute significant money.

Meral’s Water Supply and Water Quality Act of 2018 contains $200 million for the repairs, offering a way for the state to pay for the work without diverting money from other important programs.

Meral circulated several potential water bond measures in 2014 but nothing advanced to the ballot.

The last Meral-written measure to reach the ballot was Proposition 51 in 2002. Critics pounced on the traffic congestion relief proposal, arguing that it included specific projects that would benefit some of the development and business interests that donated to the campaign. It failed by a large margin that fall.

Meral said his latest proposal takes a far different approach. Much of the money would be allocated to broad categories of projects.

“Proposition 1 was the model we wanted to use because it had enormous support,” he said. “We asked, ‘Do these still meet your needs? Would you support this?’ So far, the response has been pretty good. No one has asked for micro-projects.”

The bond measure does specify some projects, though. Those include $80 million for the removal of the Matilija Dam in Ventura County.

“Everyone and their brother ... has agreed that the dam has to go,” Meral said.

Derek Cressman, a campaign-finance expert who ran for secretary of state in 2014, said California’s system of privately financed direct democracy means donors often have an agenda.

“The challenge is it takes a lot of resources to capture the attention of an electorate as large as California’s,” he said. “It takes money and the money is coming from people with a direct interest in the outcome.”

$112.3 billion General obligation borrowing approved by California voters since 2000.

Meral’s water plan could have company.

Environmental lobbyist Joseph Caves filed a proposed $7.5 billion parks and water bond earlier this month. It would authorize a $7.5 billion bond to pay for projects to improve drinking water access, climate-change efforts, parks and other projects. That includes pots of money for Sacramento-area projects, such as $150 million for the Sierra Nevada Conservancy, $40 million for the California Tahoe Conservancy, and $25 million for the Lower American River Conservancy.

In the Legislature, Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León’s $3.5 billion borrowing measure for the June ballot has cleared the Senate with bipartisan support. A bill by Assemblyman Eduardo Garcia, D-Coachella, would place a $3.1 billion resources bond before voters in June.

The four measures share some of the same funding priorities. There’s money for habitat restoration and safe drinking water supplies, projects to respond to climate change and recharging groundwater. Communities with large numbers of low-income residents would be guaranteed a share of the billions.

None of the proposed bond measures, meanwhile, include more money for dam projects to provide water surface storage. Proposition 1 set aside $2.7 billion for storage, and the California Water Commission is expected to consider proposals to spend it later this summer.

“The last thing we want to hear is you are duplicating money that is already available,” Meral said of his proposal.

State Sen. Jim Nielsen, R-Gerber, whose district includes the proposed Sites Reservoir in Colusa County as well as Lake Oroville, said he was glad Meral’s proposal included the spillway repair money. The surface storage money earmarked by Proposition 1 money is enough for now, Nielsen said.

“The bond isn’t going to have to pay for everything,” he said. “It’s an investment that has to be made. We cannot conserve our way into the future.”

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