Weighing in on the water bond

Environmentalists debate the good and bad of California’s water bond

The water bond approved earlier this month for the November ballot has drawn applause from Democrats and Republicans as just what California needs in a time of persistent drought.

But the $7.5 billion package contains subtle language that environmental groups warn could be a handout to water-hungry farmers, facilitate the construction of dams, and even grease the way for Gov. Jerry Brown’s twin tunnels in the Delta.

The bond—a downsized rendition of a previous $11 billion version—will divert money from education, health care and other social services to fund what some critics say should be projects subsidized by ratepayers.

“People getting the water should be paying for it, not the general public,” said Bill Jennings, with the environmental group California Sportfishing Protection Alliance, whose work is primarily focused on maintaining water flows through the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

Jeff Michael, the director of the Business Forecasting Center at the University of the Pacific in Stockton, says he favors some of the projects this bond supports. “But I think it could be paid for in another way,” he said. “This bond takes money from things that are paid for from the state’s general fund.”

The bond’s authors, including state Sens. Lois Wolk and Darrell Steinberg, have said it is “tunnels neutral,” with no money allowed for directly or indirectly supporting the Bay Delta Conservation Plan.

But the bond, which blew through the Assembly at a vote of 77-2 and the Senate with a clean 37-0 sweep, includes $485 million that can be used to buy water from farmers upstream of the Delta and use it for environmental benefits within the Delta.

The concern among critics who have analyzed the bond’s language is that this water could serve a second purpose, too—that of feeding the proposed water tunnels, should they be built.

“It’s subtle, but the purchasing of that upstream water facilitates the tunnels,” said Jennings. Gov. Jerry Brown’s plan to dig two tunnels beneath the Delta to facilitate the southbound transfer of Sacramento River water has been controversial on its own.

But even the bond’s firmest critics agree it has its virtues. The package includes $900 million for improving groundwater quality in the Los Angeles region, on the Central Coast, and other parts of the state; $725 million for water recycling; $200 million for stormwater-capture projects; and more than $500 million to help provide clean drinking water for communities where the tap water is currently not potable.

Brian Stranko, the Nature Conservancy’s water program director for California, says the bond is a well-balanced compromise. “Everyone wanted the whole pie,” he said. “We had to divide it up to satisfy many, many people, and we feel the environment got a good slice.”

The Natural Resources Defense Council also supports the bond measure, according to the organization’s staff attorney Doug Obegi. He says more than a million Californians currently cannot drink the water from their faucets. These communities, he says, could benefit tremendously if voters agree to the package.

Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla, executive director of the group Restore the Delta, also likes parts of the bond package but thinks it includes too much attached “pork” that will benefit San Joaquin Valley farmers.

“This should have been a smaller bond focusing on clean drinking water and drought-emergency supplies,” she said. “What’s sad is that the people who will be getting clean drinking water out of this will be paraded about as reason to pass this bond, which is overall going to harm the environment and communities in the Delta, and enrich a few special interests.”

One component of the bond that its critics are watching cautiously is the $2.7 billion in funding for surface-water storage infrastructure. The money is not earmarked for any specific projects but could be used to build two new Central Valley dams. Water from these projects, according to planners, could be released at critical times of the year to support migrating salmon and steelhead.

Environmentalists warn that such water, before it flows to the sea, could be pumped out of the Delta and into the San Joaquin Valley’s farmlands, making them question the real motives behind building the dams. Chico’s water-protection group, AquAlliance, has chosen not to present an opinion at this time.

Jennings says agricultural interests have lobbied for the projects.

Both bond opponents and supporters recognize its potential to cause harm—especially if farmers who sell their water for bond money aren’t carefully watched: They might simply turn on their pumps and pull water from underground reservoirs to continue watering their crops, a tactic called groundwater substitution, which hydrologists say is depleting subterranean reservoirs in places and causing surface water to sink underground.

“We need to be very careful that we don’t gain one water source but just lose another,” Stranko said.