The Water Bond Debates: A Crying Shame

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Sometimes the activities that occur outside of public view at the Capitol are so ridiculous that it's hard to know whether to laugh or cry.

One of the best examples of what might be called a comedy of errors, but is really just a crying shame, are the efforts to pass a water bond in California.

Back in 2009, led by Senate President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, the legislature passed a large water package that included a bill to place a water bond on the 2010 ballot. Most environmental groups involved recognized that bond was a bad deal for the environment, a good deal for some large agribusiness interests located on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley (i.e. Westlands Water District), and a great deal for one large and domineering consortium that basically obtains and then sells water to agencies around Southern California (Metropolitan Water District).

Generally, the environmentalists figured that a few groups would wage a battle against the bad bond at the ballot and would likely win. The bond was so bloated, and filled with what can only politely be referred to as pork, that it was fairly clear that a majority of Californians wouldn’t vote for it.

At some point along the way, proponents of the bad bond figured out that what the environmentalists perceived would be the voter attitude about the bond was right. They persuaded the legislature to delay the ballot vote so that now, in 2014, we’re all scheduled to finally see the bad bond on the ballot in November.

That bond has two really big problems and a number of smaller ones. The really big ones include a bloated section that is so craftily designed that its worst aspects are hidden behind a blind of euphemisms. That section would provide $3 billion for spending on "storage infrastructure".

In the world of water, storage infrastructure can mean a lot of things, good and bad. The good includes systems designed to improve groundwater percolation, restore and rehabilitate groundwater aquifers, shore up existing surface reservoirs, and even dredge silt loads from existing dams to reduce the demand for new dams.

However, as the language is crafted in the water bond on November’s ballot, there’s an extraordinary chance that most of that $3 billion for storage infrastructure will be spent on advancing three dam projects that will create irreversible environmental damage and won't create any new water. That’s right, no new water.

In short, the dams won’t provide any solutions for water supply, but will cost the public a lot of money. They will harm an already dangerously sensitive environment during what most experts on California water and climate say is a new regimen of extended drought cycles.

And all of this dam money will be spent through a "continuous appropriation", which means that once the bond is passed, some state bureaucrats are free to dole out the dam money without having to go back to the legislature to explain how the money is going to be used. That "continuous appropriation" clause is pretty language for no oversight and no accountability.

Another big problem with the November water bond, is the way it treats the San Francisco Bay Delta. In short, it paves the way for the public to pick up the tab to fix environmental damage caused by water agency and agriculture interests and the giant, useless tunnels they support building to carry more water out of the Delta system. It's a sort of get-out-of-jail-free card for Westlands and MWD. They really, really, really want those tunnels, but really, really, really don't want to have to take responsibility for paying the appropriate costs of those tunnels—including the environmental fixes. (Those fixes, by the way, won’t fully fix the damage caused by the tunnels.)

The Sierra Club opposed the water bond when it went through the legislature in 2009. We have continued to oppose it, as have some of our allies, including the League of Women Voters of California, and we recently wrote a joint letter with the League to remind the legislature of this.

Given that most polling has said that a majority of Californians won't pass a stupid, bloated water bond that has opposition, a number of legislators have been trying to craft a more reasonable bond that truly responds to the state’s water needs. A couple of good proposals surfaced, and we were even able to support one of them.

But there was one big problem: To replace the current bad bond on the ballot, any new bond bill needed a two-thirds vote from the legislature. So, like the old days, when it required two-thirds vote to pass a budget, the minority is ruling. The Republicans and some Democrats signaled they would withhold their votes until a few of their favorite items were put into the new bond.

Guess what those new items are. That's right: the dam money and the get-out-of-jail-free card.

So, now the legislative leaders in both houses are trying to craft a bond that draws the holdouts to get to two thirds. In the Senate, that has meant the bond bill we once supported has gone south and may get even worse before it wins the votes it needs to pass. In the Assembly, the crafting is underway and a new product hasn’t yet emerged.

The shame of all of this is that most people know that the answer to fixing California’s water supply problems rests on not repeating old approaches. We need to build regional resilience. We need investment in recycling projects, groundwater restoration and cleanup, efficiency projects, storm water capture, gray water reuse, and smarter water conservation, including by agriculture.

These are the sorts of projects that can benefit from a smart bond measure and that will create so-called "new water". These kinds of expenditures will draw the votes needed to pass a water bond on the ballot.

Bloated, continuously appropriated funds for dams, and end-runs around Delta protection, will just draw opposition--including ours.


Kathryn Phillips

Kathryn Phillips

Sierra Club California is the Sacramento-based legislative and regulatory advocacy arm of the 13 California chapters of the Sierra Club.