Our drought is our bond

Now that California is flowing with water, the passage of an $11 billion bond measure is in doubt

With no sign of drought this year, that water-bond measure may go down hard.

With no sign of drought this year, that water-bond measure may go down hard.

Photo By dave webb

Lance Williams is a reporter for California Watch, the state's largest investigative reporting team, and part of the Center for Investigative Reporting. Learn more at www.californiawatch.org.

Post Peak Pass is a granite notch on the remote southern boundary of Yosemite National Park, altitude 10,700 feet. Late last month, its north face was partly covered with a 100-yard-long patch of crusted snow—a reminder of just how emphatically California’s three-year drought was broken by the wild winter of 2010-11.

Although California’s high peaks still are capped with last year’s snowpack and its reservoirs are brimming with runoff, voters will be asked next year to approve an $11.1 billion state water bond measure that was crafted in response to the crippling drought. But many believe the pricey package of dam-building and water-conservation infrastructure has an even slimmer chance of passage today than in 2010, when then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger yanked it off the ballot and slated it instead for November next year.

Gov. Jerry Brown has indicated that he thinks the water bond as written is too expensive. Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, who helped negotiate the legislative compromise that led to the original measure, agrees it should be scaled back because of state financial issues, said spokeswoman Alicia Trost.

Lawmakers have until next summer to decide what to do: In theory, they could revise the bond measure, kill it outright, or leave it on the ballot as written. But revising the measure is no simple task, because any change—even another postponement of the vote—must be approved by a two-thirds vote of the Legislature.

When it comes to revising the water bond, “everything is challenging,” said Bruce Reznik, executive director of the Planning and Conservation League, which objects to the measure’s emphasis on building new dams. “Nobody thinks it’s got a snowball’s chance of passing” in its current form, Reznik said.

Complicating matters further, many of the parties to the original compromise are no longer on the scene, said another critic, Jim Metropulos of the Sierra Club. “This was decided by a different Legislature and a different governor,” he said.

The politics are different, as well, because of the drought. From 2007-2009, California’s water problems were dire. Lacking irrigation water, growers let fields go fallow. Unemployment rates in some Central Valley farm towns edged above 40 percent. The drought also was blamed for ecological collapse in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, where the Sacramento River’s storied salmon run was on the brink of extinction.

In that crisis atmosphere, Schwarzenegger, Steinberg and other lawmakers crafted their emergency plan. But a wet winter followed, and California’s immediate water problems receded. Meanwhile, environmental groups, taxpayer advocates, and some labor unions lined up against the water bond, calling it too expensive, laden with pork, and environmentally destructive.

Fearing that the measure would fail, Gov. Schwarzenegger induced the Legislature to postpone the vote to 2012. But since then, the political climate for the water bond may have deteriorated further. Voters are well aware of the state’s precarious finances. “All everybody’s been talking about is an $11 billion bond when we’re broke,” said John McManus of the Earthjustice environmental group.

Wet winters or no, California needs to solve the problem of how to guarantee a water supply to its growing population, advocates say.

“If I had my way, we wouldn’t talk about drought anymore,” said Mark Cowin, director of the state Department of Water Resources. “We live in a state that has variability in water supply. Climate change is only going to accentuate it.”

California needs to continue to “invest in conservation, recycling and water-storage projects,” Cowin said—all measures that the water bond sought to fund. Today, Cowin said the state’s water supply is in good shape. But it’s a year-to-year thing.

In the coming winter, though, “It appears as if we’ll experience moderate La Niña conditions,” he said, adding that what this means is that the Northwest will be wetter than usual and the Southwest drier.

“And here in Northern California,” he said, “it can swing either way.”