Water bond deal is done. But will it actually improve California’s water system?

150 150 Justin Ewers

(Photo Credit: Joe Marx/Flickr)

This was originally published on that California Economic Summit website

Since lawmakers agreed to a $7.5 billion water bond measure last week, most of the attention has been on how they did it (almost unanimously!), the size of the bond (smaller and more viable than the measure it bumped off the ballot), how much would go to storage projects such as dams (almost 40 percent), and how little would go to restoration projects that could be linked to the governor’s controversial Delta tunnels (1.1 percent).

There’s another issue worth considering, though: During one of the worst droughts in a century, will these billions of dollars put California on a path to water sustainability?

California Forward and its partners in the California Economic Summit have been urging lawmakers to make this their highest priority in bond discussions this year, emphasizing the need not just for more investment in the state’s aging water infrastructure but for smarter investment that will encourage more comprehensive governance of the state’s fragmented water system—and more comprehensive solutions to the state’s water challenges.

So how did lawmakers do?

While Proposition 1, as the measure will be called on the November ballot, may not accomplish all of these goals in a single stroke, it does make an initial investment in the governor’s comprehensive Water Action Plan—and many of the proposal’s provisions are a positive step in the right direction. For starters, the bond is mostly free of traditional “pork”—that is, earmarks for specific projects to earn votes rather than advance state goals. Instead, the bond dedicates a significant amount of funding to broadly-defined types of projects that will provide multiple benefits (reducing fire danger, for example, while also increasing water supply and improving water quality), it encourages integrating local water management efforts across watersheds, and it creates competitive grant processes to support infrastructure that provides the biggest return on the state’s investment.

More details on each of these areas can be found below:

What’s not in the bond: Tunnel funding, earmarks

The most notable feature of the bond may not be what’s in it—but what’s not. In an effort to improve its political prospects, the measure is very clear about the fact that any ecosystem restoration projects it supports in the Delta cannot be used to “pay the costs of the design, construction, operation, mitigation, or maintenance” of the governor’s controversial Delta tunnels.

There’s also little obvious pork in the measure, with appropriations being made to specific agencies and types of water infrastructure—but not, as in the past, via earmarks to specific projects. This is thanks in large part to “no-frills” dictats from the governor and to the groundwork laid by Assembly Member Anthony Rendon (D-South Gate) and Senator Lois Wolk (D-Davis), who were committed to crafting a more “principled” water bond long before the drought forced the Capitol lawn to go brown.

The bond does still have its occasional “porkette,” as some observers call them: One of the biggest is its allocation of $100 million for enhancements of “an urban creek,” for example—a funding stream that seems to be tailor-made for projects along the voter-rich Los Angeles River. Still, these funds aren’t earmarked for a specific city or stretch of the river, and they can be used for projects anywhere along the watershed. This and a few other examples of legislative back-scratching, in other words, are a far cry from the set-asides for bike paths and swimming pools that were added to win votes in past bonds.

Funding for projects that achieve multiple benefits

Summit leaders have been encouraging state leaders to use this year’s drought investments to advance a new paradigm where the state sets goals and regions compete to craft strategies that deliver results. The final bond follows this path in several places. The entire $1.495 billion watershed chapter, for example, is devoted to “competitive grants for multi-benefit ecosystem and watershed protection and restoration projects in accordance with statewide priorities.”

A sizeable portion of these funds ($327.5 million) will be distributed to state conservancies, a traditional method of allocating bond funds that some lawmakers tried to move away from earlier this year. But the final measure does provide some admirably clear-cut goals for these dollars. The legislation provides a detailed list of ways they can be used, giving highest priority to “multi-benefit” projects that improve “water quality, water supply, and watershed protection”—from restoring river parkways to protecting fish and wildlife corridors.

The bond doesn’t allocate nearly as many resources as it might have directly to the upper mountain watersheds where two-thirds of the state’s water comes from—setting aside $38 million to the Sierra-Cascade region, or 0.5 percent of the total bond funds. (The state’s powerful Coastal Conservancy, home to millions of people but significantly less water, will receive over $100 million.)

The measure does make much greater strides than past bonds have to better connect water projects in the mountains with the more populous valleys below—a key to the state’s water sustainability. This includes funding everything from “restor[ing] mountain meadows” to implementing “fuel treatment projects to reduce wildlife risks, protect watersheds tributary to water storage facilities, and promote watershed health.”

Integrating projects across watersheds

Some of the measure’s most compelling policies are in the nearly $1 billion allocated to regional water management. All of the funding in this section goes to Integrated Regional Watershed Management Plans (IRWMPs), a decade-old effort to encourage the state’s more than 600 urban and agricultural water districts to coordinate actions to better manage water resources.

The measure states that funding should go first to projects “that cover a greater portion of the watershed”—part of a continuing effort to ensure the plans fund watershed-wide activity instead of smaller-scale projects. To receive these funds, regions must also have developed plans to sustainably manage their groundwater, the first step toward reducing the state’s reliance on rapidly-depleting aquifers.

Stormwater also was added to the regional water management mix—along with surface and underground storage, watershed restoration, and conveyance facilities. As the California Water Foundation’s Lester Snow pointed out at last week’s Economic Summit Capitol Day, this is an essential element of making the state’s water spending more efficient: “We have to get this mindset of integration. We can’t spend money within the boundary of each entity. Capturing stormwater coming from another city and getting it into your groundwater basin—that’s where we [have not been] investing.”

Some experts still believe the bond could have encouraged even greater integration. “I personally would have liked to see more of the recycled, groundwater remediation, and replenishment funds located in IRWMP, where it is all flexible and can be used as the locals see fit,” says Celeste Cantú, general manager of the Santa Ana Watershed Project Authority, a successful model of watershed management. As time goes on, she believes the state will come to value that flexibility as a way to meet local needs more efficiently.

Maximizing return on investment

While the bond’s $2.7 billion dedicated for storage projects has raised some eyebrows—largely for a provision that could allow new reservoirs to be built without additional legislative appropriation—lawmakers tried to ensure these funds will go to the most cost-effective projects, whether they involve a dam or not.

The bond’s language, borrowed from the 2009 measure it replaces, lays out some laudable goals for storage projects, distributing funds to the California Water Commission to allocate through a competitive process “that ranks potential projects based on the expected return for public investment as measured by the magnitude of the public benefits provided.”

The timeline for using these funds is so tight (with all environmental reviews, feasibility studies, and contracts with beneficiaries to be completed by January 1, 2022) that many water experts believe the measure may do more to support a range of alternative approaches to storage—groundwater storage and conjunctive use, for example—than the major new dam proposals now being considered.

How these funds are spent matters, and implementation of the bond will be as important as the passage of the measure itself. But in this and other sections of the bond, lawmakers have clearly set the bar high—and begun the long journey to California’s water sustainability. 


Justin Ewers

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