Commentary: Backers must assure water bond fulfills its promise


Issue Date: January 28, 2015
By Danny Merkley
Danny Merkley
The proposed Sites Reservoir in Colusa County is among the projects under consideration, as the state decides how to allocate $2.7 billion for public benefits associated with new water projects, included in the Proposition 1 water bond approved by voters last November.
Map/California Department of Water Resources

Passage of the water bond, Proposition 1, on last November's ballot marked an important step in improving California's water outlook. But it was only a first step. Now, the wheels are beginning to turn to allocate the $7.545 billion contained in the bond.

That means there is much work to be done to see that the money contained in the bond gets out the door and into circulation as soon as possible—and working as it was intended.

The bond, which is formally titled the Water Quality, Supply, and Infrastructure Improvement Act of 2014, requires the California Water Commission to develop and adopt regulations and methods for quantification and management of public benefits associated with water storage projects. The act requires the commission to complete this process by Dec. 15, 2016.

Projects eligible for bond funding must provide measurable improvements to the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta ecosystem or its tributaries. Such projects include:

  • Surface storage projects identified by the Cal-Fed Bay-Delta Program, with the exception of projects that are prohibited by the California Wild and Scenic Rivers Act;
  • Groundwater storage and contamination prevention or remediation projects;
  • Conjunctive use and reoperation projects;
  • Local and regional surface storage projects.

The eligible projects include larger storage facilities preferred by many in agriculture, who stress that chances to fund these sorts of projects are rare, and now is the time to take advantage of the opportunity.

Of particular importance is the $2.7 billion investment for public benefits associated with new water storage projects that improve the operation of our state's water system and provide ecosystem and water quality improvements. This marks the first significant investment in California water infrastructure in some 40 years. Such investment is essential to improving our ability to provide water for human and environmental needs in light of today's increased population, state and federal environmental policies and the decreased Sierra snowpack we have experienced in recent decades.

New water storage is sorely needed and long overdue to capture rainwater from today's flashier storm systems, for flood protection followed later by releases for human and environmental needs during dry periods, and for groundwater recharge. Without stored water, for example, fish would not have benefited this past year from late-season, upstream water releases that augmented almost nonexistent flows.

It is now time to actively engage in the bond-funding process that will determine during the next couple of years which new water projects will be approved and funded.

The Water Commission met last week to begin discussion of a proposed work plan and activities to develop its Water Storage Investment Program Implementation Plan. The implementation plan is required by law to include development of a formal rulemaking package that quantifies and manages the public benefits of proposed water storage projects. Projects will be reviewed for their contribution to improving the operation of the overall water system, how cost-effective they are and the net improvement they provide to the ecosystem and water quality conditions.

Farm Bureau will actively participate in this process and will strongly advocate for those projects that provide the greatest public benefit to the ecosystem and to farmers and ranchers. A set of draft regulations that have been on the Water Commission website will begin the conversation and debate about what will be included in the regulation package that the commission will submit to the state Office of Administrative Law this October. A 45-day public comment period will begin approximately Nov. 1—but now is the time to engage, for the greatest opportunity to affect the outcome.

When commissioners hear from people directly—through letters, testimony at meetings and other opportunities—it makes an impact. Farm Bureau will work to keep you up to date on the commission's activities, and we encourage you to watch for Farm Team alerts for particular times to comment on the rulemaking and advocate for important projects.

The plan developed by the Water Commission will also include specific timelines, deliverables, financial and policy issues, and a process that will establish a Stakeholder Advisory Group consisting of some 30 representatives, including state, federal and local agencies; agricultural organizations; environmental groups; and tribal and disadvantaged communities. The commission will establish the advisory group next month, and Farm Bureau has already requested a spot on it.

The Water Commission has laid out a very ambitious timeline that will require close attention and fast responses from Farm Bureau and other people and groups that will be affected by its proposals.

The Water Commission will release a scoping survey to the public by February, to identify possible new water storage projects, although no water bond dollars can be released for a project prior to Dec. 15, 2016. It will also discuss groundwater project examples in February, reservoir reoperation and conjunctive use in March, and large and regional surface water project examples at its April meeting. For more information and greater detail, go to the commission website at cwc.ca.gov.

As you can see, there is a lot going on in a short amount of time. You can be sure that Farm Bureau will be participating in this process all along the way—and so will people and groups that oppose investment in additional water storage. That's why it's important for individual farmers and ranchers to remain engaged, to assure that we fulfill the promise of Proposition 1.

(Danny Merkley is director of water resources for the California Farm Bureau Federation. He may be contacted at dmerkley@cfbf.com.)

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