proposition 1, the california water bond: is it the answer to california’s water crisis?

Proposition 1, the California Water Bond: Is it the Answer to California’s Water Crisis?

By Katie Francis, ’13, B.S., IoES

On November 4th, Californians will have the chance to vote on a statewide water bond intended to provide funds for investment in water infrastructure and technology, improvement of water quality and storage, and protection of water resources and environments. For some this is a long-awaited opportunity — the bond has been delayed, altered, and reconfigured since its original conception in 2009.

History of the Water Bond and Public Support

The original legislation, which was to be included on the November 2010 ballot, proposed an $11.14 billion water bond in the face of California’s emerging drought. The state’s weak economy and poor fiscal health at the time, as well as a lack of popular support for the bill, caused the vote to be delayed twice — first in 2010, and again in 2012. The inclusion of the now $7.5 billion “Water Quality, Supply, and Infrastructure Improvement Act” on California’s 2014 ballot reflects a strong increase in support of water issues from Californians, as well as a commitment from the Legislature to produce a more straightforward, fiscally responsible bill.

In this year’s “Statewide Survey of Californians and the Environment” released by the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC), respondents cited water supply and the drought as the most important environmental issue for Californians, marking the first time since the survey began in 2000 that air pollution took a backseat to water concerns. Similarly, in this month’s “Californians and Their Government” survey by the PPIC, 68 percent of Californians said that water supply is a big problem in their part of the state. The report notes that “this level of concern is at an all-time high [for] this year.”

Why the rapid change in public attitudes about the drought?

The rise in concern over water issues in California may be due to increasing news coverage and the state government’s response to the drought, which is one of the most severe on record. In January of this year, Governor Brown declared a drought State of Emergency. Statewide emergency water restrictions went into effect in July, imposing fines of up to $500 for water waste. News coverage of the drought rose dramatically after the announcement of the emergency restrictions, fueled by images of wildfires, fallowed croplands, and reservoirs that have dipped to alarmingly low levels.

These events have presumably encouraged Californians to view water issues as increasingly relevant and personal. Assembly member Anthony Rendon, who chaired 14 legislative hearings on the water bond and co-authored the bill, believes that this change in perception allowed for increased support of the legislation. Madelyn Glickfeld, Director of the UCLA Water Resources Group at the Institute of the Environment and Sustainability, adds that the support of Governor Brown was also crucial to the bond’s placement on the ballot: “The bill was gridlocked in the Legislature, stymied by disagreements over size and surface storage. Governor Brown stepped in to lead the negotiation and, to the astonishment of many, the bond legislation was passed on time.” “Without intense public concern about the drought,” she says, “this would not have happened.”

What is in the Bond?

The other factor in placing the bond on the November ballot was the broad the content of the bill itself. Rendon, who chairs the Assembly Committee on Water, Parks & Wildlife, refers to the balance of different water solutions and the emphasis on competitive grants as the legislation’s most important aspects. The range of water improvement and investment activities covered under the bond is exhaustive — clean and reliable drinking water, protection of watersheds and water ecosystems, regional water security and drought preparedness, statewide surface water and groundwater storage, water recycling, groundwater sustainability and pollution cleanup, and statewide flood management are the main components. Most of the bond funds will be granted to projects on a competitive basis, and project proposals must comply with the requirements laid out in the bill.

Big investment in Water Storage

The majority of the $7.5 billion is committed to statewide water storage ($2.7 billion) and watershed protection and ecosystem restoration ($1.495 billion). Most of the bond’s opponents point to the bill’s water storage provisions as earmarking funds for dams and surface storage alone, however, the language actually allows for the funding of both groundwater and surface storage projects. Additionally, all projects approved for water storage funding are required to benefit either the Bay Delta ecosystem or a tributary to the Delta. Although this can seem restrictive, any regional project that increases the availability of local water would reduce that region’s take on the Delta and should therefore be eligible for funding, meaning that Southern California as well as Northern and Central California have the potential to benefit from these funds.

Watershed Protection and Restoration for Water Supply

Watershed protection and restoration projects are given the next highest level of available funding after water storage. The largest chunk of this portion is intended for water settlements that California is already obligated to contribute to, including the Salton Sea restoration and the San Joaquin River settlement agreement. Other allocations include projects that will enhance stream flows, multibenefit watershed enhancement projects that will increase regional and local water self-sufficiency, and restoration projects for inland and coastal watersheds and the Bay Delta. This particular section may be of special importance for Southern California voters, as urban creek and watershed enhancement in this region could provide much-needed groundwater recharge, habitat restoration, and increased local water supply.

Diversified Water Supply, Water Quality and Clean Drinking Water

Additional types of projects to be funded by the bill include regional water management, stormwater capture and water conservation, clean drinking water and drinking water public infrastructure, recycling, groundwater sustainability and treatment, and flood management. Additionally, at least $696 million of these funds are specified for projects in disadvantaged communities, according to the Pacific Institute’s “Insights Into Proposition 1” report, released earlier this month. These are the communities suffering the worst of the drought’s impacts, often with access only to contaminated well water or to no water at all, as groundwater levels decline.

Proposition 1 provides disadvantaged communities with funding for technical assistance in designing and implementing improved drinking water and wastewater systems, and grants them a level of priority funding for such projects. Because the funds to build the infrastructure will not be matched with operation and maintenance funds, however, the Pacific Institute notes that the long term sustainability of these projects is in doubt.

Not an Immediate Fix, but a Portfolio of Investments for the Future.

In all, the bill takes what author Anthony Rendon calls the “portfolio approach” to solving California’s water problems. The water bond would fund a broad range of potential solutions to California’s water quality, availability, and management issues. Rendon sees Prop. 1 as an investment in the next generation of water infrastructure — by promoting new or innovative technologies and funding projects for the future, the bill provides support for “the next-generation things we need to do to deal with water quality, water supply, and our environment.”

As of October’s PPIC survey, the majority of likely voters in California (56 percent) were in favor of Prop. 1. Whether the bond passes this year or not, its inclusion on the November ballot is a testament to the growing concern over California’s water issues from both citizens and the government.

For more information:

Final Water Bond

2014 Water Bond Summary Alf Brandt