Ambiguity around Proposition 1 — the California Water Bond — remains as Election Day approaches

Effect of the drought on the Uvas Reservoir in Santa Clara County. (Photo courtesy of Don DeBold via Flickr/Creative Commons)
Effect of the drought on the Uvas Reservoir in Santa Clara County. (Photo courtesy of Don DeBold via Flickr/Creative Commons)

In the midst of one of the worst droughts in memory, Gov. Jerry Brown has made Proposition 1 — the California Water Bond — a priority for the upcoming election. But with Election Day fast approaching, key details about Proposition 1 remain unclear.

If passed, the proposition would allocate $7.5 billion to a diverse set of water-related projects. Potential projects range from water storage projects, such as new and enlarged dams and groundwater replenishment; watershed restoration efforts, like the restoration of the San Joaquin River Delta; and water recycling projects, such as wastewater treatment and desalinization.

The diverse reach of the bond, coupled with the ongoing California drought, makes water issues particularly relevant this election season. Despite significant criticism that the measure is too vague, Proposition 1 passed 77-2 in the California State Assembly in August. According to a September poll by the Los Angeles Times, 64 percent of likely voters said they would vote “yes” on Proposition 1.

According to the “Yes on Props 1 and 2” website, supporters say Proposition 1 will protect the California economy and environment by ensuring a reliable water supply for farms and businesses. Supporters also say Proposition 1 would fund much needed water projects throughout the state, such as water storage projects, clean drinking water and restoration efforts. They claim this funding would, in turn, grow the California economy and protect the environment without raising taxes.

Critics of the bond say Proposition 1 will not help California get through the current drought, nor effectively help prepare for the future. Javier Padilla-Reyes, spokesperson for the No on Prop. 1 campaign and a volunteer coordinator for environmental advocacy group Restore the Delta, said there were several critiques of Proposition 1.

He said Proposition 1 puts too much focus on water storage projects. The water storage section is the largest portion of the bond. Although Proposition 1 says storage water includes projects for groundwater replenishment, Padilla-Reyes says the emphasis is on dams. But, dams would not bring immediate relief to the drought and could have devastating effects on the health of California rivers. Padilla-Reyes said the construction time for these projects could take 5 to 15 years, and would put pressure on the already over-depleted California rivers.

In addition, Padilla-Reyes said the proposition is ambiguous about key points, such as how it will fund specific projects. “The bond is left very, very vague,” Padilla said, “and that’s by design.”

Although Proposition 1 seems clear to pass, its potential effects and implementation are still hazy.

Project funding

Proposition 1 is designed to fund several types of water projects. But, how these funds would flow to specific projects remains murky.

First, if the bond were passed, the $7.5 billion would be added to the state budget.

Next, the governor would submit the budget to legislature to be passed. The legislature would then make the bond funds available. However, the legislature cannot choose specific projects to fund. Instead, they designate the bond money to different state agencies that then designate the money to specific projects.

Anton Favorini-Csorba, the fiscal and policy analyst for water at the Legislative Analyst’s Office in Sacramento, said the exact role of the legislature has not been defined.

“Frankly, I think that’s just going to be tested at various points,” Favorini-Csorba said. “About, you know, how specific can the legislature get? It certainly has the ability to provide some guidance on how the funding is spent. But if you get overly specific, does that violate the provision? I think that will remain to be seen.”

Which agencies would be chosen to allocate bond funds is also unspecified. Furthermore, once the legislature does designate bond money to a department, there are no criteria for how or when specific projects would be chosen.

Water storage projects

Water storage is the only section of the bond with some specificity about project funding.

Instead of going through the legislature, the $2.7 billion allocated for storage water would be given directly to the California Water Commission.

The California Water Commission consists of nine members, chosen by the governor and confirmed by the Senate. These members would be responsible for choosing storage water projects.

Favorini-Csorba said the commission would use a specific rating system to choose projects. This rating system has not been released.

Still, even without the legislative process, storage water projects face barriers.

Bruce Cain, a political scientist and director of Stanford’s Bill Lane Center for the American West, said that opposition from environmental groups would pose a barrier to the construction of water storage projects. Environmentalist groups are opposed to water storage projects, and specifically dams, because of the negative health effects on the river-fed ecosystems and fish populations.

“It’s quite possible the money will sit while the litigation goes forward and we try to sort this all out,” Cain said. “There’s no guarantee that these bonds will be spent in a timely manner, or that they will be spent at all.”

Use of taxpayer dollars

How Proposition 1 will affect taxpayers is also still unclear.

Of the $7.5 billion in the water bond, $7.1 billion would be new debt for the State of California. According to the supplemental official voter information guide for 2014, this will represent an additional debt of $360 million a year for the next 40 years, to be paid out of the General Fund.

The General Fund finances California education, health care, correction centers and most other core functions of the state government. It’s unknown at this point if Proposition 1 would force cuts in these other programs or if it will change taxes.

Barring a significant shift in the polls between now and Nov. 4, Proposition 1 seems almost certain to pass — spurred on by Gov. Brown’s campaign efforts, no doubt by voters’ anxiety about drought and water in the years to come, and, just maybe, by the uncertainty around what the proposition would actually do.

Cain said these uncertainties might be intentional, as specificity is easier to fight against than a proposition about saving California’s water. When speaking about stormwater projects, for example, Cain said, “If the governor knows what he’s doing with that money, he ain’t telling anyone.”

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