Coming water fight: Promising signs from capital in water bond early stages

150 150 Justin Ewers

(Photo Credit: Raymond Shobe)

While much of the state’s attention continues to revolve around the governor’s high-profile, $24.7 billion plan to build two massive tunnels under the Sacramento Delta, the rest of the state’s deteriorating water system–from its network of crumbling levees to the vital mountain watersheds that are the source of most of California’s water–has been quietly sitting on the sidelines.

The Legislature created an $11 billion bond in 2009 to pay for needed upgrades to this diverse system, packing the measure full of popular local water projects. But while the governor’s tunnels–aimed at creating a more reliable way of moving water from northern to southern California–continues to move ahead, the bond has yet to make its way to voters. Lawmakers decided to remove it from the ballot in 2010 and 2012 amid rising concerns that the measure was too big and, well, too packed with popular local water projects (i.e. “pork”).

The good news: Legislative leaders have gone back to the drawing board–and last week unveiled a set of principles that could serve as the foundation of a smaller, more politically viable water bond that may be put before voters in 2014.

A refreshing approach

These principles, developed by a working group created by Speaker John Pérez and released by the Assembly Water, Parks, and Wildlife Committee, offer some promising signs of the Legislature’s willingness to take on the state’s water challenges beyond the Delta–and to do it in a way that will appeal to voters.

The very fact that a group of Assembly members have formed a working group that took the time to pause before diving straight into the bond’s details–and come to an agreement instead on a set of principles that should inform their effort–demonstrates a refreshingly transparent approach to policymaking.

The principles themselves, titled Proposed Principles for Developing a Water Bond, also reflect many of California Forward’s own ideas for how the state can adopt a Smart Infrastructure Strategy for California–one voters can hold more accountable for measurable results. Over the last year, the California Economic Summit’s Water Action Team has pursued a similar approach.

The Proposed Principles align with these ‘Smart Infrastructure’ ideas in three major ways:

  • Focus on results: The Proposed Principles focus on investments that will support the state’s long-term growth–and emphasize the importance of measuring these projects’ progress. The principles focus water bond funding on increasing the diversity of the water supply, ensuring access to clean water, and restoring “the health of California’s watersheds.” They call specifically for “standards and performance indicators to demonstrate progress on water bond investments.” And they abandon the 2009 bond’s approach outright, saying a new bond should “prohibit earmarks to specific water projects, and establish competitive processes for awarding water bond funding.”
  • Assign responsibility and integrate efforts: The Proposed Principles also delegate responsibility for water decisions to the regions–acknowledging that the state’s infrastructure investments must be a shared responsibility among state, regional, and local governments. This idea is one of the cornerstones of California Forward’s Smart Infrastructure Strategy. Specifically, the principles support making “water investment decisions on a regional basis, through the Integrated Regional Water Management Program.” These local grant-making bodies are much better-suited than the state government to take on the task of encouraging local agencies to work more collaboratively in each region to manage local and imported water supplies.
  • Find new ways to pay for it: Finally, the Proposed Principles reflect a renewed willingness to reexamine how the state can pay for these upgrades to its water systems–an issue California Forward has made a top priority for other infrastructure projects, as well. In addition to pushing the state to leverage the new water bond funds with federal sources and existing bond revenues, the committee is also pursuing an approach that would require “beneficiaries to pay for their benefits, while the public pays for public benefits.” This would put more responsibility for funding water systems on large private water users like agriculture and industry–an approach that is popular with voters, if not always with the stakeholder groups themselves.

The Proposed Principles

The new Proposed Principles for a revised water bond are below, in full:

a) Authorize bond funding for future state investment that accomplishes critical statewide water policy priorities, including:

  1. Protect the Sacramento‐San Joaquin Delta.
  2. Increase regional self‐reliance and diversification for water supply, and reduce reliance on water imported from other watersheds, using Integrated Regional Water Management as the instrument for achieving regional self‐reliance.
  3. Ensure that all Californians, especially disadvantaged communities, have access to clean and safe drinking water.
  4. Restore the health of California’s watersheds, to protect our important coastal and inland waterways, especially for salmon that depend on both.
  5. Promote development of new water technology to support greater water conservation and water reuse.
  6. Expand California water storage options, including surface storage, groundwater cleanup, and storm water capture.
  7. Strike a fair, intelligent balance between improvements and maintenance of existing infrastructure and construction of new infrastructure.

b) Increase accountability for spending of State water bond funding, including:

  1. Prohibit earmarks to specific water projects, and establish competitive processes for awarding water bond funding.
  2. Make water investment decisions on a regional basis, through the Integrated Regional Water Management Program.
  3. Set standards and performance indicators to demonstrate progress on water bond investments.
  4. Leverage State bond funding with federal, regional and local funding sources.
  5. Require beneficiaries to pay for their benefits, while the public pays for public benefits.
  6. Repurpose currently authorized, but unspent water bond funding from past voter‐approved water bond measures.
  7. Acknowledge all California’s needs for infrastructure bond funding, including funding needs for education and transportation, in developing a bond that authorizes a reasonable amount of funding for water

c) Respect existing California water rights, including area‐of‐origin protections.

d) Retain policy prohibiting use of water bond funding for construction or mitigation of new water conveyance facilities in the Delta.


Justin Ewers

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