Ballotwatch: Proposition 1’s water bonds followed long legislative odyssey

Amid a multiyear dry stretch that is among the worst droughts on record, California lawmakers this year made crafting a new water bond a priority.

They had done this before, back in 2009, but Sacramento consensus held that the formerly passed $11.1 billion measure was doomed at the ballot box: too big, too full of pork for specific local projects.

The replacement didn’t come easily. It required months of wrangling as legislators sought to win the needed votes by appeasing various demands: Gov. Jerry Brown wanted a smaller sum, something in the $6 billion range, while Republicans, Central Valley lawmakers and agricultural interests wanted more storage money. Environmentalists cast a skeptical eye on dams and warned about backdoor funding for Brown’s Delta tunnels.

In the end, the $7.5 billion measure (it allocates $7.1 billion and would reappropriate $425 million from existing bond money) won broad support. After late-hour negotiations boosted the water storage outlay to $2.7 billion, the bond secured near-unanimous votes in the Legislature and a laudatory signing ceremony from Brown.

What it does

Authorizes bonds for:

▪ $2.7 billion for water storage, which could mean both dams and groundwater replenishment.

▪ $810 million for regional water supply projects

▪ $725 million for water recycling and $800 million to clean up contaminated groundwater

▪ Just over $500 million to help communities purify wastewater or obtain more potable drinking water.

▪ $395 million for flood protection, the majority in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta region.

▪ $1.5 billion for the environment, including $137.5 million for the Delta.

Who’s for it?

▪ Association of California Water Agencies

▪ California Farm Bureau Federation

▪ Natural Resources Defense Council

▪ State Building and Construction Trades Council of California

▪ Westlands Water District

▪ Metropolitan Water District of Southern California

Who’s against it?

Environmental groups critical of taxpayer-subsidized new dams, including:

▪ Food & Water Watch

▪ Restore the Delta

▪ Center for Biological Diversity

Major contributors


Brown’s ballot committee, previously used to generate cash for Proposition 30 (it had a $2.8 million balance) and since converted to support both the water bond and Proposition 2, a rainy-day fund on the ballot. More than $4 million flowed into the committee in September alone, including six-digit figures from labor and agricultural groups. Some big donations:

▪ Union donations included $100,000 from the Northern California District Council of Laborers, $400,000 from the Laborers Pacific Southwest Regional Organizing Coalition and $500,000 from carpenters groups

▪ The California Farm Bureau Federation and the Western Growers Service Corporation, $500,000 combined

▪ The Fisher family, owners of The Gap, $980,000

▪ Tech mogul Sean Parker, $1 million


Stockton-area donors, including several farms and ranches, have given all of the nearly $50,000 in the anti-bond committee’s account. The region is the epicenter of opposition to Brown’s tunnels.

How true are competing claims?


▪ Proposition 1 invests in new storage, increasing the amount of water that can be stored during wet years.

Including money for water storage projects was critical to the bond passing the Legislature. Actually building those projects could get complicated.

Money for a project must be approved on a competitive basis by the California Water Commission. At most, half the money for a project can come from the bond, and it must satisfy certain public benefits. Applicants must prove they have other funding sources, like local investors, lined up. Getting the projects approved also requires extensive environmental review, both by the state and potentially the federal government, depending on the location and if federal funds are involved. And there is always the potential of lawsuits slowing things down.

▪ Proposition 1 will not raise taxes and is fiscally prudent.

The measure does not authorize a tax increase, but California will be on the hook for repaying the bond money plus interest. Recurring general fund deficits spurred Brown and lawmakers to champion the Proposition 30 tax increase voters passed in 2012. According to the Legislative Analyst’s Office, it would take 40 years to pay off the borrowed money at a rate of $360 million a year.


▪ All the most productive and cost-effective dam sites in California already have been developed. Proposition 1’s new dam projects increase California’s total water supply by as little as 1 percent, while costing nearly $9 billion to build.

That the prime dam sites are taken is widely accepted among water experts, although dam-focused lawmakers have new locations in mind. Topping the list are the proposed Sites Reservoir in Colusa County and the Temperance Flat Dam on the San Joaquin River. The state already has compiled and released necessary environmental reports and feasibility studies on both.

The cost invoked by opponents combines the estimated cost of those two plus three other candidates (raising the Los Vaqueros, San Luis and Shasta dams) to get to $9 billion, a figure that assumes all of them get built – a stretch – and does not clarify that some of that money would come from sources other than the bond. Those five projects together would yield just above 400,000 extra acre-feet of water in average years, according to U.S. Bureau of Reclamation projections, which is less than 1 percent of the 42 million acre-feet of water the U.S. Geological Survey recorded California withdrawing in 2010 (28 million acre-feet of that came from surface water).

▪ It will help build Brown’s tunnels.

Perhaps no proposal generates as much controversy as Brown’s plan to bore two titanic tunnels beneath the Delta. Since the Bay Delta Conservation Plan requires hefty spending on what’s called “environmental mitigation,” environmentalists and Delta champions feared a bond would expedite the tunnels by funding the environmental piece. “Delta-neutrality” became a rallying cry.

Those fears have mostly dissipated. Proposition 1 includes far less money for Delta restoration than the 2009 version. No less a Delta voice than Sen. Lois Wolk, D-Davis, said the smaller outlay is worth it because of strict language prohibiting it from funding the tunnels.

Critics also warn that money for “enhanced flows” could help the tunnel plan, making more water available for export by satisfying environmental requirements that a certain amount of water flow through rivers. People differ on whether the money eligible for flows in the bond could push the Bay Delta Conservation Plan forward. Lawmakers were satisfied it would not; Proposition 1 opponents believe it would.