California’s priority should be water, not high-speed rail

The proposed Sites Reservoir would flood land west of Maxwell. Two state officials are backing a ballot measure to redirect high-speed rail money to water storage projects.
The proposed Sites Reservoir would flood land west of Maxwell. Two state officials are backing a ballot measure to redirect high-speed rail money to water storage projects. Sacramento Bee file

What’s more important to you? Having reliable, clean and safe drinking water, or being able to catch a not-so-fast train between Los Angeles and San Francisco?

In the midst of a record drought, to most Californians the answer is simple: Water is far more important than a botched bullet train.

However, some elected officials don’t have their priorities in order. They believe spending money on a train to nowhere should take precedence over the needs of California families, food producers and workers.

Yes, in 2008 California voters approved Proposition 1A by a slim margin, providing $9.95 billion in funding for high-speed rail. Voters were promised the project would be completed quickly, boost California’s economy and attract significant investments from the federal government and private sector.

All of these promises have been broken. The project has more than doubled in cost to $68 billion and has suffered numerous setbacks that will cost taxpayers. While consultants hired by the High-Speed Rail Authority continue to say that the inflation-adjusted cost will be about $71 billion, outside experts estimate the final cost could be $93 billion.

It’s clear that construction costs will fall squarely on Californians and that taxpayers will end up subsidizing operations for years to come.

California voters deserve another say. That’s why we’ve submitted a ballot measure to the attorney general that would redirect the remaining $8 billion in high-speed rail bond funds toward building new surface and groundwater storage.

Priorities would be set by water experts, not politicians. Our measure establishes priorities by adding a new section to the California Constitution, making drinking water and irrigation the primary beneficial water use ahead of all other needs. The measure would also dedicate $2.7 billion of unspent water bond funds to local surface water and groundwater projects, including water treatment facilities and injection plants needed to store clean, drinkable water.

California’s long drought has changed our state’s priorities. Our initiative will help remedy water supply and storm management problems in Southern California, while building critical water infrastructure for the rest of the state.

A few urban Californians will benefit from high-speed rail, but we all pay the price for inadequate water storage. Since our state’s half-finished and aging water infrastructure was built 50 years ago, our population has doubled.

Even with the benefit of El Niño, most of the rain we receive this winter won’t be captured and will end up in the ocean. Many cities need expensive projects to meet federal and state mandates to capture, treat and recycle storm water runoff. But neither Congress nor the Legislature appropriated funds to pay for these projects, anticipated to cost billions. The burden will fall on working families as water rates soar.

Our proposition provides a clear path for funding these important storm water and groundwater recycling projects, and it does so without a penny of new taxes or borrowing by the state. Given our state’s water crisis, it’s time for voters to demand that state government does what every family does when faced with changing times – make priorities.

George Runner is vice chairman of the State Board of Equalization. He can be contacted at Bob Huff, a San Dimas Republican, represents the 29th Senate District. He can be contacted at