We must do more to protect the future of California’s water, but that doesn’t mean just pumping in more money without making sure the investments will have widespread benefits for the public.
Proposition 3 – the $8.9 billion bond on the Nov. 6 ballot – fails that test. Voters should say “no.”
The measure promises money for quite a few local agencies, nonprofits, private water companies and others, which is great for them. It’s not clear, however, that these are the projects that California needs most right now, or that they couldn’t get the money elsewhere.
For example, clean drinking water is an urgent issue, with more than 1 million Californians potentially exposed to unsafe water. But Proposition 3 isn’t the solution. Only $750 million is specifically aimed at safe drinking water and wastewater disposal in poor communities, mainly in the Central Valley.
Another big strike against Proposition 3: It doesn’t call for as much oversight as many previous statewide water bond issues.
For instance, the California Water Commission required storage projects seeking money from Proposition 1, the $7.5 billion water bond approved in 2014, to prove they had public benefits, such as flood control, recreation and environmental improvements. While supporters of the Sites reservoir and other projects chafed, it made their proposals stronger.
By contrast, the Proposition 3 money would continuously flow into more than a dozen different state departments, which would pass on the dollars in the form of grants, according to the independent Legislative Analyst’s Office.
Opponents, led by the Sierra Club, make a compelling case that Proposition 3 amounts to “pay to play.” Some beneficiaries – including a who’s who of agriculture companies and trade associations – are the biggest contributors to “yes” campaign committees, which have raised well more than $4 million so far.
And although he isn’t publicizing his opposition, Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon is among the critics of Proposition 3 because of what his office calls a lack of oversight, an absence of statewide priorities and a surplus of special interest projects for Central Valley agriculture.
Besides the bonds, the measure also would directly benefit the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, the Contra Costa Water District, the San Luis and Delta Mendota Water Authority and the state Department of Water Resources by giving them state cap-and-trade revenue to offset higher electricity costs. The LAO says that could total tens of millions of dollars a year.
Since 2000, voters have approved about $31 billion in general obligation bonds for water and environmental projects, the LAO says. As of June, about one-third was still available, including $4 billion that was in Proposition 68, approved by voters in June and put together by the Legislature after public hearings.
Proposition 3 would authorize general obligation bonds that would be repaid out of the state’s general fund. If all the bonds are sold, it would take an average of $430 million a year for 40 years to pay them off. Gov. Jerry Brown, who has made it a priority to reduce the state’s debt and put money into reserves to prepare for the next recession, is staying neutral on this measure.
Jerry Meral, a former Brown administration water official, crafted Proposition 3. He says Proposition 68 didn’t go far enough, and says that opponents are trying to pit agriculture against urban water users and environmental groups.
The measure divides the money into six major categories: watersheds and water quality; water supply; fish and wildlife habitat; water infrastructure; groundwater; and flood protection. There are important projects on the list, including $750 million to repair the federal Madera and Friant-Kern canals, so it’s understandable why many Central Valley groups back Proposition 3.
But this is not how water spending should be done in California. While the state’s water politics and finances are immensely complicated, they come down to who pays and who benefits.
On Proposition 3, all taxpayers would have to repay the bonds. But the list of beneficiaries is far smaller – not enough to deserve voters’ support.