Water bonds are as familiar as summer reruns to California voters, who have considered at least 16 of them on statewide ballots since 1960 — the year voters narrowly approved spending $1.75 billion to build the State Water Project. On November 5, however, the electorate is likely to consider a water bond measure that is different from all predecessors.
Instead of being drafted by legislators and lobbyists in Capitol hallways and committee rooms, the Water Quality, Supply and Safe Drinking Water Act of 2002 is the product of citizen initiative. Sponsors submitted more than 750,000 signatures in April, and Secretary of State Bill Jones certified the initiative for the ballot a month later.
Statewide water bond measures usually creep along a tortuous and cryptic political path outlined by lobbyists and veteran staffers. There are arcane pitfalls to avoid and scores of competing interests to satisfy — farms and cities, fish lovers and dam builders, rural and urban water agencies — if a proposal is to avoid fatal opposition. Complex, behind-the-scenes negotiations are standard procedure.
The citizen initiative process, in contrast, tends to reward advocates whose argument can be conveyed effectively during a quick pitch for petition signatures in shopping mall parking lots. Statewide water planning does not typically lend itself to this sort of simplification.
The Water Quality, Supply and Safe Drinking Water Act of 2002 also differs from most water bonds in the way it blends funding for water projects with money for habitat conservation. And, although people are calling it a "water bond," the measure would do little to procure new supplies. Most of the funding categories focus on enabling users to get more mileage out of existing supplies.
The 12 legislative water bond measures approved by voters during the 1960s, '70s and '80s focused exclusively on building things: dams, canals, sewage treatment and reclamation plants, purification facilities, pipelines, pumping stations. None explicitly allocated a single dollar to ecological programs.
That began to change in 1996 with Proposition 204, which allocated more than $500 million to ecological restoration, and fish and wildlife programs primarily associated with the Cal-Fed Bay-Delta Program. Cal-Fed is a state and federal effort to reverse the decline in sensitive fish and wildlife populations in the Bay-Delta region while also increasing the quality and reliability of the water supply diverted from the Delta to farms and cities.
The linkage between water supply and environmental protection continued in 2000 when California voters approved Proposition 13, a $1.97 billion bond measure that provided $250 million for Bay-Delta fish and wildlife programs, and $468 million for watershed restoration and protection elsewhere.
The logic of this linkage is clear. In an ecosystem compromised by urban development, farming and dams, water often is degraded and costly to make drinkable, and fish and wildlife populations often are endangered, requiring that diversions be reduced or managed differently to keep imperiled species from suffering further harm.
The initiative awaiting certification by Secretary of State Bill Jones for this November continues this merger of water-supply and environmental concerns. It is, in effect, a hybrid of three major issues: Cal-Fed, the California 4.4 Plan (under which the state must reduce diversions from the Colorado River to its legal entitlement of 4.4 million acre-feet a year), and protection and restoration of watershed and coastal wetlands.
Joe Caves, the veteran Sacramento lobbyist responsible for the initiative, says the initiative started out to be a coastal watershed and wetlands campaign. He and the environmental groups that are the initiative's primary proponents decided to broaden it to include water-supply components when they realized that funding for Cal-Fed was drying up, and that it would take too long to coax a conventional water bond through the Legislature.
"Proposition 13 took about three years to negotiate, hammer out and work through," Caves noted.
The state can't wait that long. In 2000, California and federal officials committed to a seven-year funding plan for costly improvements to the Bay-Delta system. Although the state already has committed or spent hundreds of millions of dollars, its full obligation is likely to approach $5 billion. Propositions 204 and 13 provided money for Cal-Fed, but not nearly enough; lawmakers had been dipping into the general fund to supplement the bond funds. With the state facing a huge budget deficit this year, the general fund is no longer an option.
So, after consulting with staff of The Nature Conservancy, the Audubon Society, Heal the Bay and other environmental groups — as well as the Metropolitan Water District, which is bearing the brunt of California's effort to reduce Colorado River diversions — Caves and his staff drafted, circulated and apparently qualified a water bond initiative. The state is in the second year of the seven-year Cal-Fed process; Caves said his initiative fully funds the state's share of programs in years four and five.
The initiative's $3.44 billion breaks down this way:
Coastal watershed and wetland protection ($950 million):
* Coastal watershed protection
* San Francisco Bay wetland protection and restoration
* Southern California wetland and watershed protection
CAL-FED Bay-Delta program ($825 million):
* Storage planning and studies
* Water conveyance
* Delta levee restoration
* Interim water supply reliability
* Ecosystem restoration
* Watershed protection
* Conservation and efficiency projects
Integrated regional water management ($640 million):
* Water supply reliability, storm water capture
* Wetland restoration, pollution reduction
* Groundwater recharge, salt removal and reclamation
* Water banking and exchange
* Integrated flood management
* Fish and wildlife enhancement
Safe drinking water ($435 million):
* Small system upgrades
* Treatment and contaminant removal
* Drinking water source protection
* Revolving loan fund
Clean water and water quality ($370 million):
* Pollution prevention, reclamation, blending and exchange
* River parkways that provide water quality benefits
* Lake Tahoe water quality projects
* Clean beaches
* Sierra Nevada water quality projects
Contaminant and salt removal technologies ($100 million):
* Desalination projects
* Treatment projects for MTBE, arsenic, chromium, etc.
Colorado River ($70 million):
* Canal lining
* Ecosystem restoration
Water security ($50 million):
* Monitoring and early warning systems
* Protective structures
* Emergency interconnections
* Communication systems
Joe Caves: (916) 558-1516.
Text of the Water Quality, Supply and Safe Drinking Water Act of 2002: www.pcl.org/bonds/water/text.html
Cal-Fed Program: http://calfed.ca.gov/