California water bond wins passage

Houseboats are docked in the low water at Lake Shasta’s Bay Bridge resort near Redding in September. Gov. Jerry Brown and lawmakers had hoped California’s drought would persuade voters to approve Proposition 1.
Houseboats are docked in the low water at Lake Shasta’s Bay Bridge resort near Redding in September. Gov. Jerry Brown and lawmakers had hoped California’s drought would persuade voters to approve Proposition 1. The Associated Press

California’s aging water infrastructure and collection of ecosystems will receive a $7.5 billion injection of taxpayer dollars, as voters on Tuesday approved a sizable bond that had become a priority for lawmakers and the governor.

Voters were backing Proposition 1 by 67.5 percent to 32.5 percent with 35 percent of precincts reporting.

A drought that has withered water supplies, imperiled farms and deprived some Californians of reliable drinking water placed the water bond atop the Legislature’s agenda this year. Lawmakers barreled through deadlines as they sought to craft a bond measure that could win broad support and replace a previous bond measure, passed in 2009, that most came to reject as too large.

From the moment in August that the Legislature passed bond legislation and Gov. Jerry Brown affixed his signature, backers projected confidence about the measure’s chances. They unified in a coalition that included environmental groups, agricultural entities and organized labor.

The governor campaigned heavily for the bond – more assertively, it seemed at times, than for his own re-election. Brown had vowed to oppose an $11.1 billion measure that lawmakers passed in 2009 and then delayed twice. Lawmakers discarded that bond and substituted the $7.5 billion measure that, while higher than the $6 billion total Brown initially floated, still represented a slimmed-down alternative.

The breadth and financial might of the pro-bond coalition easily eclipsed the opponents. A small group of environmental groups, funded largely by donations from the Stockton area, decried what they called an emphasis on building new dams and warned the bond could quietly aid Brown’s intent to build two massive water pipes beneath the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

Opponents also warned about the debt load the state would assume. According to the Legislative Analyst’s Office, the measure requires California to pay off the borrowing for 40 years at an annual cost of $360 million.

Much of the debate in the Legislature centered on constructing more storage facilities. California’s sprawling water delivery system relies on a network of reservoirs to stash water that is then piped to users throughout the state or released for environmental reasons.

Republicans and lawmakers from the agriculture-reliant Central Valley said California must build more dams and reservoirs to ensure a larger overall supply of water in dry years. The bond was crafted in a way that facilitates funding new dams, although water experts have questioned the cost-effectiveness of such projects since the most obvious sites in California are already spanned by dams.

Of the $7.5 billion allocated by the bond, more than a third is designated for storage projects. The final $2.7 billion figure emerged from down-to-the-wire negotiations.

Other outlays in the bond include: $800 million for regional water infrastructure projects and $500 million for drinking water and wastewater treatment in small communities; $800 million to clean up contaminated groundwater, which is pumped from beneath the earth; $725 million for recycling and reusing existing water or desalination; $395 million for flood protection; and $1.5 billion for environmental projects around the state.

California recently became the last state in the West to assert broad control over groundwater. The bond was intended to aid that effort to have local agencies monitor how much water flows out of wells, allocating $100 million for management plans.

Democratic leaders argued that any perceived link with the Delta project would doom the bond. While the bond bills being debated prohibited spending money on constructing tunnels, advocates warned that bond money could fund the environmental restoration piece of the Bay Delta Conservation Plan.

In the end, language governing how bond money could be spent assuaged Delta advocates who were convinced that no bond money could be counted toward the BDCP. Every lawmaker representing the region voted in favor of the borrowing measure.

Now the scramble for bond money is on. It will be distributed through a competitive grant process overseen by various state agencies. Which agency vets applications and awards money will depend on what the money is for.

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

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