Water bonds, still in early stages, bob toward 2014 ballot

150 150 Justin Ewers

(photo credit: Chris Metcalf)

Updated: Monday, September 30, 2013

A little over a year before voters will have an opportunity to approve billions of dollars in spending to upgrade the state’s aging water system, there is agreement in the Legislature on at least one thing: The same $11 billion bond lawmakers approved in 2009—and then pulled from the ballot several times amid concerns about how it was created (largely behind closed doors) and what exactly was in it (more than a billion dollars in last-minute earmarks)–will not be on the menu.

“We heard voters loud and clear on the size and scope of [that] bond,” Sen. Fran Pavley said at a joint Senate committee hearing this week devoted to two scaled-down water bond proposals headed toward the November 2014 ballot, both of which would cost roughly $6.5 billion.

This new-and-improved approach to tackling the state’s water challenges–an issue last year’s Economic Summit identified as one of the state’s top priorities and this year’s Infrastructure Action Team is continuing to focus on–seems to be a fairly substantial attempt at what one lawmaker called a legislative “do-over.”

Even before a poll released this week showed more than half of voters would support a slimmed-down bond, lawmakers seemed to have committed themselves to a more transparent, more deliberative process than water debates of years’ past.  “It was 3 in the morning when the [last bond] vote was taken,” as Sen. Jerry Hill put it this week. “Nothing good happens at 3 in the morning.”

Wrestling with the details

In this week’s hearing, lawmakers from both the Senate and Assembly openly and publicly wrestled with the policy nuts and bolts involved in investing in the state’s water system to address challenges of both water quality and supply, while preserving environmentally sensitive areas like the Delta.

“We’ve built the most sophisticated water storage and conveyance system in the world, and we’re not going to walk away from that investment,” said Asm. Anthony Rendon, author of one of the new bond proposals. “In the coming decade, we’re going to need to invest billions of dollars in water infrastructure. We need to figure out a way to pay for it.”

Though much of the state’s attention remains on the governor’s $23 billion plan to build two 30-mile tunnels under the Delta to move water more efficiently from north to south, the relatively smaller water bond proposals, one authored by Asm. Rendon (AB 1331) and one by Sen. Lois Wolk (SB 42), could very well be the biggest steps the state takes in the next decade on water issues ranging from expanding wastewater treatment programs to restoring the Delta.

Early media reports have begun to portray the two bills, somewhat unfairly, as either focused on the Delta (Sen. Wolk, from Davis, has a more fully-developed mechanism for delivering funds to Delta projects in her bill) or on statewide water projects (Asm. Rendon, from Los Angeles, has focused more broadly on preparing the state’s infrastructure for the impacts of climate change).

At this stage, it’s clear that the vast majority of the spending in both bills would go to statewide water quality and supply projects, with both currently proposing $1 billion to restore the Delta ecosystem. With months of negotiations still ahead, neither proposal seems to be set in stone.

What the proposed water bonds have in common, though, is an approach largely in line with that of the Economic Summit: a focus on transparency, on encouraging more regional self-reliance, and on finding common ground in the always-heated disagreements over how water issues affect Californians from north and south, urban and rural areas.

Where the issues are

Some of the key issues raised during this week’s hearing:

  • The scope of the problem: Lawmakers cited a recent EPA estimate that California will need to spend $40 billion during the next 20 years to ensure the delivery of safe drinking water to a growing population—a problem any bond must begin to solve. Studies show that while 97 percent of Californians currently have access to clean water, nearly a million people in the state do not. “California’s water quality needs to be the best,” said Sen. Hill. “This needs to get our attention.” According to the latest Senate staff analysis, both bonds propose spending upwards of $1 billion on reducing and preventing water contamination.
  • The size of the solution: The most recent PPIC poll seems to indicate that roughly $6.5 billion bond would be in the safe zone for most California voters. (Though another recent poll found voters wary of spending that much.) How big is the final bond likely to be? John Pérez, the Assembly Speaker, recently said a bond of around $7-8 billion is passable. The Association of California Water Agencies (ACWA), a group representing more than 400 public water agencies, has released an $8.2 billion water bond proposals of its own. “We think a number that size is viable,” Cindy Tuck, ACWA’s executive director of governmental relations, said this week. “We think the Legislature shouldn’t be so afraid of controversy.”
  • How to sell it: Both bonds would prohibit earmarks (i.e. pork), significantly reduce the amount of money the state spends on water storage (i.e. dams), and stay away from funding water “conveyance” (i.e. the governor’s tunneling project). It’s already becoming clear how the bill’s authors are marketing their approaches: While Asm. Rendon talks about the need to combat climate change (“California stands at a precipice,” as he put it this week, “facing a water crisis with climate change as a key driver”), Sen. Wolk has promoted a bond she says is “sensible, realistic, and supportable”—while also “avoiding the most controversial projects that are likely to kill any bond at the ballot.”
  • Where will the money go—and who will distribute it? Both bills put an emphasis on funding water projects through existing integrated regional water management plans, but the details of how those funds would be distributed and what local agencies are allowed to spend it on—the real substance of the water bond, some would argue—are still undetermined. What is clear, at this stage, is just how much lawmakers are determined to keep the bond small and focused: “We need to really keep the focus on investing in projects that can be done in the next 5-10 years,” said Sen. Wolk. “We’re also going to need to avoid the temptation to inflate the bond even further. There are many worthy projects, but they can’t all be funded by this bond.” 

Justin Ewers

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