With only two legislators voting “no,” a revised water infrastructure bond was overwhelmingly approved by the California Legislature on August 13, and with his signature that evening, Governor Jerry Brown committed his support for the upcoming campaign to persuade voters to approve the measure this November.
It has been a long and tough road from the momentous night (early morning, actually) in November, 2009, when a bare two-thirds majority of the Legislature approved an $11.1 billion water bond. That bond was originally set for the ballot the next year, in 2010, but the collapsing economy dampened voters’ appetite for more public spending and debt. As the economy continued to sputter, the bond was pushed off yet again to November 2014.
Entering 2014, Governor Brown made no secret of his discomfort with the 2009 bond, both for its total size and impact on the state budget, and for the widely-held perception that it contained funding for a number of questionable projects (commonly known as “pork”).
The brutal drought impacting California clearly helped change Governor Brown’s approach to the notion of a water bond appearing on the November ballot, alongside his own name as he stands for reelection. By the time legislators returned from their summer recess in early August, the governor had proposed his own version, totaling $6 billion. Funding for new storage projects that could help construct two new reservoirs in the Central Valley was reduced in the governor’s proposal by a third, from $3 billion to $2 billion. Funding for projects that would help restore the Delta and hopefully allow for improved management operations of the state and federal water projects, was also reduced in the governor’s proposal, from $2 billion to less than $1 billion.
After two weeks of intense negotiations and several internal squabbles among the various interests groups and legislative voting blocks, the governor and legislative leaders announced an agreement on a $7.5 billion package, with $7.1 billion in new bond funding and $400 million in previously-approved bonds to be repurposed. Surface storage projects will be eligible to compete for $2.7 billion, which is the only part of the water bond that cannot be withheld by the legislature in the annual budget appropriations process. After decades of ignoring the state’s water storage infrastructure, voters finally have the chance to approve major funding in a new water bond.
Other sections deliver real benefits as well, with $800 million going to groundwater cleanup, $810 million going to local projects that include urban stormwater capture and conservation, nearly $1.5 billion for watershed projects that can help improve water flow reliability, $725 million for water recycling projects that include treatment and reuse of wastewater and desalination, and nearly $400 million for flood control projects. While many of these projects benefit urban areas, agriculture benefits as well as cities find ways to stretch their limited water supplies, which reduces pressure on the agriculture water supply.
Now we turn to the task of educating voters about the benefits of the new water bond, which will appear as Proposition 1 on the ballot. With just weeks remaining before voters begin sending in ballots by mail, the pressure is on to organize and fund a solid campaign. Fortunately, Governor Brown committed to owning the campaign to pass Prop. 1. The significance of this cannot be overstated. The governor is uniquely able to raise the millions of dollars required to mount a successful statewide ballot measure campaign. Just as important, Governor Brown has the greatest credibility to inoculate against attacks that this water bond is too expensive. Having labored to bring the state’s fiscal house in order — often under fierce criticism from interests that want to see higher public spending — Brown can assure voters that this water bond is a wise investment.
Western Growers will help the governor lead this campaign. Our industry finally has the chance to win voter approval of a water bond that actually builds new water projects. It has been too long in coming, and we won’t see another opportunity like this again for a very long time. It’s time to step up and secure the victory.
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