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The Clock is Ticking to Craft a Good, BDCP-Neutral Water Bond for California

Doug Obegi

Posted July 24, 2014

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This November, California voters will almost certainly vote on whether to authorize billions of dollars of taxpayer spending for a water bond. But crucially, the next few weeks will determine what water bond will be on the ballot in November – how much borrowing it authorizes, what it spends that money on – and whether it is a good investment in California’s water future. 

Since 2010, state legislators have been trying to replace the “bloated,” “pork-filled,” $11.1 billion water bond that the Legislature approved in the waning days of 2009.  Originally scheduled to appear on the 2010 ballot, the Legislature and Governor Schwarzenegger postponed the vote in 2010 and again in 2012, worried that voters would reject the bond. 

They had (have) good reason to be worried. 

  • In recent years, editorials in major newspapers across the State have criticized and opposed the 2009 water bond and recommended the Legislature pass a smaller bond and eliminate billions of dollars in earmarks and pork.   For instance, in 2012 he Sacramento Bee wrote, “If we had our druthers, we'd let voters decide this November on the once-delayed $11.1 billion water bond, passed by lawmakers in 2009. The sooner voters dispatch this albatross, putting it out of its misery, the sooner California can get serious about smarter and more equitable alternatives for financing needed water infrastructure.” Similarly, in 2012, the LA Times Editorial Board called it “fat with earmarks,” and earlier this year they called for a “a bond on this year’s ballot that’s stripped of obvious pork and nice but superfluous extras, like museums and visitor centers.”  In 2013, the San Francisco Chronicle’s editorial board described the 2009 bond as, “the pork-laden $11 billion measure now on the November 2014 ballot.”
  • Environmental groups like the Sierra Club, farmers and local governments in the five-county Bay-Delta region, and civic groups like the League of Women Voters opposed the 2009 water bond, either because it would provide more than a billion dollars for the Bay Delta Conservation Plan (the $25 billion plan to build twin tunnels under the Delta that will harm California’s salmon and other native fisheries, threatens the livelihoods of thousands of salmon fishermen and Delta farmers, and jeopardizes the health of the Bay-Delta estuary) or because it earmarked billions of dollars for economically infeasible and environmentally damaging new dams. (Or both)     
  • Unions including the United Farm Workers and California Teachers Association have opposed the 2009 water bond because it would do little to help farmworkers and would compete for funding with schools, health care, transportation, and other taxpayer priorities.
  • Governor Brown, numerous state legislators, and local officials like Mayor Garcetti of Los Angeles have recently expressed concerns with the 2009 water bond, and many legislators have announced their opposition to it.
  • Numerous public and private polls showed that the public would likely reject the 2009 water bond, particularly when they learn of this opposition and the bond’s connection to the twin tunnels project.

(Here is a link to a collection of some of those editorials, newspaper columns, press releases, letters, and stories about opposition to the 2009 water bond.)

But since 2013, legislative leaders in both the Senate and Assembly dedicated countless hours to craft a new water bond to replace the 2009 water bond.  Legislators held hearings across the state, numerous draft bills were refined through the legislative process over the past 16 months, and both the Assembly and Senate began coalescing around several specific bills. Yet with only a few weeks left for legislators to take action, they have not been able to muster the supermajority necessary in both houses to replace the 2009 water bond.  Not surprisingly, the two most controversial issues preventing agreement thus far are:

1)     What will the bond do with respect to the Bay-Delta and the twin tunnels plan (the Bay Delta Conservation Plan)?

2)     What will the bond do with respect to new storage, both groundwater aquifers that are sustaining California through the drought, and possible new reservoirs and dams?

I’ll talk about this second issue of storage in more detail in a few days, but for now let’s focus on the Bay Delta Conservation Plan (BDCP).  Numerous polls (such as this one and this one) have shown that the public does not support the $25B twin tunnels plan, and polling shows that a bond is likely to lose if it is connected to BDCP.  With environmental groups, the League of Women Voters, Delta farmers, fishermen, local governments, and many others opposed to BDCP, the conventional wisdom is that a bond connected to BDCP will fail. After all, water bonds in California typically pass thanks to strong support from environmental groups, no significant opposition, and strong support from progressives and coastal residents (who also, incidentally, pay the vast majority of taxes to pay for borrowing authorized by a bond).

As a result, one of the key principles that most legislators, the Governor, and stakeholders have agreed to is that the bond should be neutral on the BDCP. (What it means to be BDCP neutral, of course, is in the eye of the beholder)

Yet some of the largest water users in the state have demanded that a water bond fund the environmentally damaging Bay Delta Conservation Plan, lobbying legislators to oppose recent bond proposals, even when those recent proposals were virtually identical to the 2009 water bond’s storage provisions. Why? Because these recent bond proposals were neutral on the Bay Delta Conservation Plan, but the 2009 water bond, in the words of one advocate (Mario Santoyo), had “$2.25 billion in there, for what was called Delta sustainability, which in essence was going to provide the down payment for the BDCP process which ultimately builds the twin tunnels.” (Check out the 57:00 minute mark of this June 27, 2014 KMJ radio broadcast) The text of the 2009 water bond states that it sets aside $1.5 billion for projects including “implementation of the Bay Delta Conservation Plan” (see here, on page 11 of the pdf). The State’s draft Bay Delta Conservation Plan (page 8-84 to 8-85, see here) estimates that the 2009 water bond would provide a minimum of $1.5 billion for implementation of the twin tunnels plan.  

The clock is ticking on the Legislature’s time to replace the 2009 bond. Whether voters will get to vote on a water bond that is truly BDCP-neutral, or whether the bond becomes a referendum on the twin tunnels plan, will be decided in the next few weeks. 

With billons of dollars at stake in potential funding for projects to provide safe drinking water for disadvantaged communities, water recycling, stormwater capture, agricultural and urban water conservation,  watershed restoration, and groundwater cleanup, we certainly hope that Legislators can craft a BDCP-neutral water bond, and one that we can support.

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Switchboard is the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation’s most effective environmental group. For more about our work, including in-depth policy documents, action alerts and ways you can contribute, visit NRDC.org.

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