Viewpoints – Anthony Rendon: How to bring accountability to the state water bond

150 150 Justin Ewers

The Sacramento Delta is a puddle in California’s water situation. (photo credit: Amanda Champ) 

Anthony Rendon has a good reason for bringing what he calls a “fundamentally different process”–one based on being transparent and building credibility with voters—to the always-heated, and usually murky, debate over how California should modernize its aging water system.

In a word, Bell.

“I come from a district where half the cities have former councilmembers in jail,” says Rendon, a freshman Assembly member who is the new representative of a southeast Los Angeles district that has become synonymous with political corruption–most notably in the city of Bell, where five former city councilmembers were recently found guilty of stealing millions of dollars in public money.

“From my standpoint,” says Rendon, who spent his career as an environmental champion and early childhood education advocate before taking office, “what I’m really about is accountability and credibility.”

In his first months on the job, Rendon has proved this is more than just a campaign slogan. When he was named chairman of the Assembly’s high-profile water policy committee this spring, Rendon seized the opportunity to push for a “fundamentally different process” to the biggest item on the committee’s agenda: The state’s long-delayed–and much-maligned–water bond.

The ‘other’ water challenge

While much of the state’s attention this year has been focused on the governor’s $25 billion effort to modernize the state’s water system by digging two large tunnels under the Sacramento Delta, a separate $11 billion measure to pay for other water system upgrades, from levee repair to watershed restoration, has been sitting on the sidelines.

Lawmakers have pulled the bond from the ballot twice since it was first drawn up in 2009 amid concerns about how it was created (largely behind closed doors), what exactly was in it (more than a billion dollars in last-minute earmarks for local water projects), and how much it was going to cost (the price tag would have made it the second-largest water bond in state history).

All things, in other words, that Rendon would like to do differently. With the support of Speaker John Pérez, Rendon has spent the spring and summer leading a group of Assembly members focused on rebuilding the water bond. The group divided the state up into regions and began conversations with stakeholders from environmental groups like the Sierra Club and League of Conservation Voters to agriculture interests and representatives of urban water districts.

In July, Rendon’s group earned plaudits for unveiling a set of proposed principles they would like to see serve as the foundation of a smaller, more politically viable water bond–one that would go on the ballot in 2014. The group’s principles are clear not just about what the bond’s objectives should be (protecting the Delta, reducing the state’s reliance on water imports, and restoring the health of California’s watersheds, among other things), they also include a detailed list of ways lawmakers can make the bond more accountable to voters (going so far as to suggest earmarks for specific water projects should be prohibited entirely).

And that, says Rendon, is the point: “We wanted to step back and look at the needs of all Californians,” Rendon told lawmakers when the principles were unveiled earlier this month. “If we leave the current bond on the ballot, it will fail to win approval…These principles reflect a process that is different. We plan to work collaboratively and engage everyone in government and the public. We will need to step back, and look toward the future and what California needs.”

‘A fresh break’

Rendon calls this is a “fresh break” not just from the existing water bond–which few lawmakers now support–but from the way the Legislature has haggled over water issues in the past. “I think we’re at the start of a new period in California politics,” he says. “I’m part of the 12-year term-limit folks, a group that will be here longer than previous generations.”

He believes his group’s principles reflect a desire among new members to change the way the Legislature operates–emphasizing policymaking objectives, for example, instead of simply drawing up a laundry list of projects that stakeholders have requested. “We want to do things differently, be inclusive, and start with the kind of thing you’d hope California politics would be based on,” says Rendon.

This new approach has arrived at a turbulent time in the state’s water politics. (Then again, when isn’t it?) California’s economy–the eight largest in the world–relies on a water system built in the 1950s and 1960s for a population of 17 million. Today, this system is serving twice that number. Before needed upgrades are made, it’s likely to be serving three times that many people.

Unlike in years’ past, the state has nowhere to look for help. “There was a time when the federal government was very involved in building large water projects in the West and especially in California,” says Rendon. “That’s fallen off in recent years. We have to assume that’s going to remain constant, and we’re going to have to find ways to pay for [this sort of] public benefit.”

That means proposed solutions will need public support–and lots of it. Thus, Rendon’s “fundamentally different” approach, one based on building credibility from the start.

Rendon isn’t blind to the obstacles that still lie ahead, including the coming negotiations between lawmakers over competing bond proposals–and between the Legislature and the governor over how the bond will interact with the governor’s tunneling project.

From Rendon’s point of view, though, the goal remains the same: “At this point, we’re focused on passing a water bond voters will approve.”

Sounds simple enough.


Justin Ewers

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