A $7 billion blunder?

Environmental groups say water proposition is no panacea

Lake Oroville was down precipitously in July, as were the rest of the state’s reservoirs.

Lake Oroville was down precipitously in July, as were the rest of the state’s reservoirs.

PHOTO by meredith j. graham

Proposition 1, the $7.1 billion state water bond, is aimed at easing the state’s dire water situation by, among other things, increased storage capacity, recycling, protection of drinking water, increased wastewater treatment, creation of emergency water supplies and conveyance.

That last part, conveyance, which means transferring water from one part of the state to another—more specifically, north to south—raises the red flag.

As such, general support of or opposition to the bond is somewhat dependant more on geographical location than political persuasion. The Los Angeles Times, a fairly progressive publication, endorses Prop. 1, while the Chico Enterprise-Record, which is reliably conservative, has come out against it, albeit reluctantly, and namely because it doesn’t financially guarantee the building of the Sites Reservoir in Colusa County.

(To be fair, the Sacramento Bee and the San Francisco Chronicle also have endorsed Prop. 1, but in areas north and east of those regions, support dwindles.)

The bond, whose adoption by the state Legislature put the proposition on the ballot, was supported by both the Democratic and Republican parties as it passed overwhelmingly in Sacramento with a vote of 37-0 in the Senate and 77-2 in the Assembly. The state’s Democratic leaders, Gov. Jerry Brown and Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, support it.

Local environmental groups, including the Butte Environmental Council, AquAlliance, the Sacramento River Preservation Trust, Chico Conservation Voters and Friends of Butte Creek have come out against the proposition. So, too, have fishing groups and others worried about the impacts on the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and the state’s fishery.

BEC officials note Prop. 1 includes some worthwhile components, such as water conservation and funding for restoring watersheds, but the bond promotes north-to-south water transfers via purchase at a time when existing water rights exceed the actual supply of water by a 5-to-1 ratio. The bond, as BEC points out, does not create more water.

Carol Perkins, BEC’s water policy advocate, says the bond doesn’t address the urgent nature of the issue. “We need immediate solutions like recycling and efficiency improvements,” she said, “not borrowing now to purchase water and shift the burden to our children and grandchildren.”

Prop. 1 would set aside $2.7 billion for new reservoirs, which would theoretically include the Sites Reservoir, although such projects ultimately would be chosen by members of the California Water Commission. Perkins studied the potential impacts the proposition, including the construction of Sites Reservoir, would have on Northern California groundwater resources.

Above-ground storage facilities do not offer much in the way of new water, her study notes, though Sites could increase the existing supply by 1 percent. On the other hand, at least 30 percent of the surface water in the state is known to evaporate or be lost to infiltration back into the ground, which means “groundwater storage will be the ‘wave’ of the future.”

She said $520 million would be allocated for organizations to compete for clean-water and waste-water infrastructure projects.

“That money would be set aside for competitive grants,” Perkins said, “which means it goes to the savvy, well-funded organizations instead of the smaller communities without county or district water departments.”

Perkins said the bond also provides hundreds of millions for water conservancies, and that those monies would not be dispersed on a level plane. For instance, she noted the conservancy in L.A. County’s Baldwin Park would receive $10 million for its 2,038 acres of land, which equates to $4,906 per acre. On the other hand, the Sierra Nevada Conservancy, which provides 60 percent of the state’s water supply, would receive $25 million for its 42 million acres, or 59 cents per acre.

“Los Angeles is getting a lot of money and so [statewide] environmental organizations like the Audubon Society and the Nature Conservancy are for [Prop. 1] because it means more money for them,” Perkins said. “We’ve had $20 billion set aside in taxes and interest since 2000 and we still have water problems. The money gets put aside, but is not being spent where it needs to be spent.”