California water bond still fluid despite looming deadline UPDATED

|
()
Environmentalists fear water from the Delta would be diverted to Southern California residents.


California is in the midst of a record-setting drought, but state lawmakers still aren't fully on board with Proposition 43, a water bond measure that could finally enact the aborted Safe, Clean and Reliable Water Supply Act of 2012 if approved for the November ballot. Now, with the California Legislature working to revise the measure by tomorrow’s [Wed/13] new deadline, the original proposal might not make it onto the ballot as it currently stands.

Prop. 43, originally placed on the 2012 ballot but moved to this year’s election by the Legislature, has been criticized by Gov. Jerry Brown, who called for a $6 billion bond on June 25, nearly half the legislation's current $11.14 billion cost. Brown called the current legislation "a pork-laden water bond...with a price tag beyond what’s reasonable or affordable," a sentiment shared by others who see through what the California official voter information guide’s argument against the bond calls a "bloated measure."

Now, state lawmakers are closing in on a $7.2 billion bond, with $2.5 billion set aside for water storage projects, though the approaching November election gives them a small window to make changes. The Assembly originally aimed to put the finishing touches on the legislation by Monday evening, when the voter guides were scheduled to begin printing, but it delayed the deadline until Wednesday. [UPDATE 8/14: Brown and lawmakers yesterday struck deal to place a $7.5 billion water bond on the fall ballot.]

But even the new legislation doesn't cut it for some environmentalists, including Sierra Club California Director Kathryn Phillips, who helped pen the argument against Prop. 43 in the state's voter information guide.

"We believe that they are essentially setting up a system that will allow big water marketers to buy water north of the [Sacramento-San Joaquin River] Delta and put it in the river as a so-called environmental flow," Phillips told the Bay Guardian. "Then private entities will extract more water out of the Delta. Any money that is put into flow, unless you put very clear boundaries on it, can be used to just accelerate the extraction of water from the Delta."

Instead, Phillips believes the funds should be allocated to more needy recipients. "We really think the money should increase regional resilience," Phillips said, naming percolation and stormwater capture as examples. "There is money for those, but it's a small amount compared to the single biggest expenditure."

That expenditure is water storage, an important and necessary part of dealing with droughts, such as the one parching California right now. But when the money appropriated for that cause ends up funding other projects, like extracting water out of the Delta for things like “outdoor recreation,” as Phillips said, the problem isn't really solved.

"'Storage' means that $2.5 billion is going to go toward three dams—and maybe a couple more projects—in the Central Valley," Phillips said. "None of that money will be available to those on the North Coast or those west of the Delta, and it will be continuously appropriated; there will not be legislative oversight."

And, according to Phillips, that means lawmakers can essentially do whatever they please with the funds.

"The Republicans have wanted $3 billion to be going to storage projects and they have defined them in a way that doesn't include groundwater storage, with preference to projects that are directly linked to the Delta," Phillips said.

Indeed, Assemblymember Connie Conway, the GOP’s minority whip, has voiced her support for Prop. 43 if state lawmakers can’t come to terms on a revised measure, and the proposition does indeed allocate $3 billion for storage, as Phillips mentioned.

“While we are currently reviewing the details, it’s clear that this latest proposal is going in the right direction. Increasing funding for storage is imperative to meet our goal of providing a reliable water source to all of California for generations to come,” Conway said in a statement on Monday. “However, the proposal fails to provide a sufficient down payment on the two large storage projects that are the backbone of any comprehensive water plan. Shortchanging water storage will result in one or both water storage projects not being built and water that could provide for millions of households per year would continue to be lost.”

Brown recently proposed a $6 billion bond, in which he did not include funding for a pair of 30-mile tunnels to be placed under the Delta, a project that Brown called for in July 2012 and one that environmental advocacy group Friends of the River calls "the worst threat to Northern California rivers in history."

Prop. 43 does include the Delta, calling for "habitat restoration" that environmentalists say is a prime example of greenwashing Brown's project, which would provide water from the Delta to farmers and southern California residents, at a massive cost both economically and environmentally.

Those in favor of Prop. 43 argue that it will help prepare for droughts by improving water storage ability, create jobs through its call for infrastructure improvements, and improve water supplies for farmers. Lisa Lien-Mager, spokesperson for the Association of California Water Agencies, did not respond when contacted by the Bay Guardian for comment.

The constant discourse regarding the issue (several other price tags came before the $7.2 billion figure) put in question lawmakers' ability to come to a resolution in time for the November election. Both houses of the Legislature would have to approve a rewriting of the proposal by a two-thirds vote, on top of securing Brown's signature.

As Conway said, “There is still work to be done to reach agreement on an alternative water bond that addresses our state's critical water storage needs.”