Lawmakers Put $7.5-Billion Water Bond on Ballot that May or May Not Help Finance Delta Tunnels

Thursday, August 14, 2014

State lawmakers have wrestled with putting a massive water bond before the voters for five years, pulling it twice from the ballot amid concern about its size, its timing and a proposal to build tunnels in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to ship water south.

After extending a deadline two days to get an $11-billion bond on the November ballot, legislators hacked it down to $7.5 billion and promised that the money wouldn’t be used for tunnels. The measure picked up the votes of every lawmaker in both houses except for Assemblymen Tim Donnelly (R-Twin Peaks) and Wesley Chesbro (D-Arcata).   

The bond proposal includes $2.7 billion for water storage projects, down from $3 billion in 2012, when the measure was dumped for fear it would draw attention and support from Governor Jerry Brown’s own $8 billion tax measure. Watershed restoration programs would get $1.5 billion; $900 million would go to groundwater cleanup and monitoring; and $725 million would be spent on water recycling.

Missing is the $2.25 billion for projects that “support delta sustainability options” that was in the 2012 version of the measure.

Environmentalists fear that money could still be siphoned from the water bond to help pay for a $25 billion plan, supported by the governor, that would, in part, build parallel Delta tunnels to divert water south to farmers and thirsty Southern Californians. Sierra Club California Executive Director Kathryn Phillips told the San Jose Mercury News, “We're hopeful, but we're worried. . . . We believe there is money in this bond that is vulnerable to being gamed by farmers and water agencies who don't care about protecting the Delta.”

Skeptics think the Bay Delta Conservation Plan is a cynically deceptive water grab that will further degrade the delta. They fear it will also encourage unsustainable agricultural practices near the delta, violate the Clean Air Act, kill recreation around the delta and get rid of incentives to fix levees.

Lawmakers said there was nothing to worry about. Longtime Delta advocate Senator Lois Wolk (D-Davis) told the San Francisco Chronicle, “This bond has a great deal of good for everyone and harms no one.”

Legislators almost didn’t finish their work. They had to extend the deadline for printing voter guides by two days at a cost of millions of dollars. The bill needed Republican support in the overwhelmingly Democratic Legislature to garner the two-thirds support needed for passage and despite the lopsided vote, the outcome was in doubt almost to the end.  

Republicans wanted more money for water storage. Democrats wanted guarantees bond money wouldn’t facilitate building the tunnels. Brown wanted a bill closer to $6 billion. But in the end, the punishing drought, improved state economy and the sense that this opportunity might not present itself again for years got the job done.

The newest incarnation of the measure will appear as Proposition 1 on the ballot.

–Ken Broder


Water Bond Headed to Voters (by Jeremy B. White, Sacramento Bee)

California Water Bond Clears Legislature, Brown Signs Off (by Jessica Calefati, San Jose Mercury News)

Slimmed-Down California Water Bond Heading to Voters (by Melody Gutierrez, San Francisco Chronicle)

State Lawmakers Approve Ballot Measure for $7.5 Billion Water Bond (by Melanie Mason, Los Angeles Times)

Water Bond off Crowded Ballot That Still May Tax Voters’ Patience (by Ken Broder, AllGov California)

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