No room for waste in California’s water bond

The Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta Conservancy will get $50 million from the water bond for habitat restoration projects.
The Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta Conservancy will get $50 million from the water bond for habitat restoration projects. Sacramento Bee file

More than two-thirds of California voters authorized the state to borrow more than $7 billion to improve a water system strained by more than three years of drought. Now the difficult job of smartly targeting problems and effectively implementing projects is beginning.

With that huge amount of money on the table, many government and non-governmental agencies began salivating before the polls opened Nov. 4. The fear of wasting billions of taxpayer dollars unwisely on poorly conceived plans that do not lead to a more sustainable water system was the most salient argument heard from the nearly 2.3 million Californians who voted against Proposition 1. We hope those fears do not bear out.

One of the challenges will be to direct funds to projects that are coordinated to have the greatest impact on some of the state’s most pressing needs. Yes, the list of needs is long and many problems won’t be completely addressed, but significant progress can be made on how California approaches its demand for water through treatment facilities, recycling, habitat restoration and storage.

The $520 million designated for clean drinking water and wastewater treatment has the potential to dramatically improve the lives of many disadvantaged California residents. It’s astonishing that water flowing from the faucets in some communities does not meet safe drinking standards. The water may contain a variety of contaminants such as nitrates, perchlorate and arsenic, to name a few.

Water treatment facilities for poor, rural communities that don’t have safe water to drink should be high on the list of concerns for legislators returning to Sacramento this week.

One question: Out of $7.5 billion in the bond, is $520 million enough money to solve all the problems in many communities that don’t have adequate public water facilities? The answer is no, of course not. But the bigger question legislators will need to figure out is who will pay for maintaining the new facilities in disadvantaged communities after they are built. There is no money in the bond for continued maintenance.

Some will argue that the state has plenty of water for residents and agriculture, but we do not use it efficiently or recycle it on a scale that could ensure a stable supply. The bond provides $725 million for recycling and advanced water-treatment technology projects, such as desalination and wastewater reuse. With the concern over a dwindling snowpack, it’s time to embrace recycling, wastewater reuse and apply technological advances to desalination plants.

A much bigger share of bond money – $1.5 billion – will go to several state agencies and regional conservancies to protect and restore rivers, lakes, creeks and urban streams. Eleven regional agencies will receive $327.5 million – including the San Diego River Conservancy ($17 million), State Coastal Conservancy ($100.5 million) and Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta Conservancy ($50 million) – for projects to improve the flow in streams and rivers that will enhance ecosystems. These various regional projects, especially those designated for the Delta, will need a coordinated approach to achieve the greatest impact.

The most controversial and costly aspect of the bond is water storage. There are two distinct camps on how best to invest the $2.7 billion earmarked for storage. One side wants to build new dams or increase reservoirs of existing dams. The other camp says the state can get more bang for its buck with groundwater storage.

The California Water Commission, made up of nine members appointed by the governor, will decide which projects are the most cost-effective and provide the biggest improvement for the state’s water system. It will set criteria for projects and evaluate them over the next 18 to 24 months.

The commission should establish a thorough and transparent public process to evaluate proposed storage projects. The decisions on how and where to spend $2.7 billion for water storage poses the biggest risk due to political influence to waste this huge amount of taxpayer dollars.

Other projects will be approved by the State Water Resources Control Board or the Department of Natural Resources and go into a draft budget for review by Gov. Jerry Brown. After the budget is given to the Legislature in January, the public will have the opportunity to weigh in. If the budget is approved by July 1, money will soon flow to projects statewide.

With $7.5 billion on the table and the state in the fourth year of drought, it’s critical the taxpayers’ money is spent wisely.