California voters have rejected Proposition 3, the $8.9 billion water bond, sending a message to politicians. But what is that message?
It can’t be that the state’s water problems have been solved. They haven’t been.
It can’t be that Californians don’t care about water. Poll after poll shows we do.
And it certainly doesn’t mean that more money – and potentially a lot of money – isn’t still needed to modernize our water systems. It is.
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Maybe the message is that it’s time to look for a different approach. Instead of a costly bond that puts more pressure on the state’s general fund, legislators should consider fees tied directly to the amount of water people use.
California voters have approved about $60 billion (in 2018 dollars) for water projects since 1960. They just approved more than $4 billion in June for new land and water bonds. Proposition 3, which would have cost taxpayers about $17 billion over 40 years with interest factored in, might have been too much for voters to bear.
A water user fee would be simple: a tiny charge on all surface and groundwater withdrawals. We have similar fees already on energy, cell phones, and other basic utility services.
A modest user fee of only $20 per acre-foot of water, or $0.0006 per gallon, would generate $800 million per year. Such a fee would raise my home water bill by less than 50 cents per month.
The money raised should be committed to water projects with a clear public benefit and communities that cannot afford adequate water services. It could fund access to water in disadvantaged communities that still, inexcusably, don’t have consistent safe and affordable water; provide needed capital to farms and cities for water-efficiency improvements or wastewater treatment and reuse; improve and accelerate groundwater storage projects; restore ecosystems; support integrated regional water management planning, and more.
The fee could exempt or rebate low-income consumers. Farmers could bear such a fee, and money could be returned to them to invest in reducing water use and improving its quality. The fee would require more accurate and consistent monitoring and measurement of all water uses, which is long overdue.
The money can be managed and allocated through competitive grants run by an independent commission – perhaps the State Water Resources Control Board or the California Water Commission – with transparent oversight and stakeholder and public input.
California’s legislature has debated versions of this idea for a long time, including two bills this year (SB 844 and 845) that would have created a fund to help provide water for one million Californians who lack safe and affordable water. These bills enjoyed bipartisan support, but politics — and perhaps the thought that Proposition 3 would let legislators off the hook — killed them. New versions should be reintroduced.
Let’s move away from massive water bonds designed by – and supporting – special interests. More permanent and carefully managed funds must be found if we are to support the necessary improvements to California’s critical water systems. A resource fee would be a major step in the right direction.