New water bonds could go before voters in 2018


Issue Date: August 2, 2017
By Christine Souza

On the assumption that one year of heavy rainfall hasn't erased Californians' memories of the severe drought that preceded it, state lawmakers and other proponents have drafted measures that could go before California voters in 2018, seeking investments in various projects dealing with water and the environment.

Four new bond proposals pertaining to water and the environment have been filed with the state or are currently pending in the state Legislature. California Farm Bureau Federation Director of Water Resources Danny Merkley, who is analyzing the proposals, said they contain resources intended to address a variety of California water challenges. These include safe drinking water and water quality, water efficiency and recharging groundwater supplies. CFBF has not taken a position on the bond proposals, Merkley said, adding that tackling these water challenges remains important for the future sustainability of the state.

"All forecasts are suggesting that California will experience longer and more frequent drought periods, punctuated by heavy snowfall and rain events like we received this year. This means California needs to be more targeted in its approach to storing, moving and using water," he said.

Bond financing as a means to raise money for projects is a way for the state to invest in its aging water infrastructure, Merkley said.

"Anything that could help us upgrade the state's aging and neglected water infrastructure, whether it is storage, conveyance or water quality, is helpful," Merkley said. "Plus, water-supply conditions have changed today from 40 or 50 years ago and, other than Proposition 1 three years ago, we haven't made many substantial improvements in the system to accommodate federal and state environmental policy, changing weather patterns or population growth from 17 million to nearly 40 million today."

The new proposals could build upon investments agreed upon in November 2014, when voters approved the Proposition 1 water bond, which authorized $7.5 billion in general obligation bonds for state water-supply projects. Proposition 1 included $2.7 billion dedicated to new water storage, Merkley said, and provided funding for regional water reliability, water recycling, water conservation and watershed improvements.

The following water and environmental infrastructure proposals could be considered in 2018:

  • A proposal by state Senate President Pro Tem Kevin De Leon, D-Los Angeles, known as Senate Bill 5, would allocate $3.5 billion for water infrastructure, safe drinking water, groundwater, floodplain restoration, state and local parks, recreation facilities and wildlife. It could appear on the June 2018 ballot.
  • Assembly Bill 18 by Assembly Member Eduardo Garcia, D-Coachella, is a park bond that would allocate $3.1 billion for state parks and outdoor recreational sites, and increased access to recreation for disadvantaged communities. It would also include funds for improving water conservation, water quality and use of recycled water. It could appear on the June 2018 ballot.
  • An $8.37 billion proposal from Gerald Meral, former California Natural Resources Agency deputy secretary, would allocate funds to a variety of projects, including water-supply infrastructure; water storage and conveyance; ecosystem and watershed protection and restoration; and drinking water protection. It could appear on the November 2018 ballot.
  • A $7.5 billion proposal by environmental advocate Joseph Caves would allocate funds for projects for safe drinking water, water quality, climate resilience, and state and local park improvements. It could appear on the November 2018 ballot.

Justin Fredrickson, CFBF environmental policy analyst, noted that of the four proposals, the Meral bond initiative contains the largest number of directly water-related items, including money for safe drinking water, groundwater management and recharge, forest and water management, water infrastructure and supply, and system improvements to the Madera and Friant-Kern canals, including potential floodwater diversion and groundwater recharge capacity on the east side of the San Joaquin Valley.

He said SB 5 "allocates significant monies for levee and flood-system maintenance, while the Caves initiative commits a significant sum to the Salton Sea." The AB 18 bond proposal focuses mainly on parks, open space and land acquisition, without significant attention to water, Fredrickson said.

To appear on the ballot next year, the legislative proposals must pass both houses of the Legislature and be signed by Gov. Brown. The initiative proposals from Meral and Caves must be submitted to the attorney general to prepare a title and summary. Proponents would have to collect 365,880 verified signatures from voters to qualify the initiative for the ballot.

Merkley noted that gathering signatures and funding a campaign to reach voters can be very costly—and the governor's active support would be another key factor for success, as it was for the Proposition 1 bond.

In the case of the new water and environmental bond proposals, he said, proponents might ultimately combine projects into a single measure to place before voters. If the measure grows too large, Merkley said, it could face competition from other bond proposals, such as those promoting higher education, low-income housing or transportation projects.

"With a couple of bonds out there, they could work against each other, so if it is possible to bring the (water-related) bonds together, that would give it a higher likelihood that it could move forward with everyone's support," Merkley said.

(Christine Souza is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at csouza@cfbf.com.)

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