Water Bond Delay Denies Voters Chance To Send Message On Environment, Spending

Posted on 13 August 2010

Printer-friendly versionPrinter-friendly versionSend by emailSend by email

By Dan Aiello
California Progress Report

While water bond proponents like Republican Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and Democrat Senate Pro Tem, Darrell Steinberg, scrambled for the two-thirds vote necessary to snatch Proposition 18 from the jaws of almost certain defeat at the hands of deficit and economy weary voters in November - the measure's environmental and conservationist opponents - having joined forces with good governance, education and taxpayer rights advocates - lost their bid to keep the initiative alive. Not to pass it, but to present it as a sacrificial lamb for voters to slaughter as a warning to future legislative attempts to govern by favoring special interests over the best interests of the state's economic and natural resources.

Proposition 18 had been endorsed by nearly every major water district in the state, including the Contra Costa Water District, the Westlands Water District, the Santa Clara Valley Water District and the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California. The legislative-born measure, not surprisingly, had the support of the notoriously pro-big business California Chamber of Commerce, the California Farm Bureau Federation, and the endorsement of Republican gubernatorial candidate, Meg Whitman. Former governor and current Democratic gubernatorial candidate, Jerry Brown, did not support Prop 18.

"After reviewing the agenda for this year, I believe our focus should be on the budget, solving the deficit, reforming out-of-control pension costs and fixing our broken budget system," said Schwarzenegger, who last year held the budget hostage to passage of the water bond legislation. It was widely reported the governor considered passage of Prop 18 an essential part of his legacy as governor.

"While a water bond is critical to providing clean, safe water for future generations, we support the governor's call to delay it for two years," a relieved Beau Goldie, CEO of the Santa Clara Valley Water District told the San Jose Mercury News.

Traci Sheehan, Executive Director of The Planning and Conservation League, reported in November that, while almost every water district, peripheral canal supporter, and property owner - either poised to turn worthless desert acreage into fertile farmland or housing subdivision or otherwise able to profit from the reselling of water - supported the $11.1 billion dollar water bond as essential to the state's economic survival, nearly every newspaper editorial board opposed the measure as a special interest, unnecessary boondoggle.

"The Legislature and governor seem oblivious to state Treasurer Bill Lockyer's warning that the annual repayments of up to $800 million for the water bond will add to the state's annual debt service, now at $6 billion and growing," wrote the Orange County Register. "Without the new obligation, debt service payments are projected to escalate from the current 6.7 percent to 10 percent of the state's general fund budget by 2015."

Sheehan's list of editorials continued:

"Our View: This bond is full of waste", wrote the Merced Sun-Star, which highlighted to its readers that, "The state will have to pay hundreds of millions of dollars in interest each year that could go to education."

The Contra Costa Times wrote that there are "Winners and Losers in this Water Deal". The winners are "Delta 'exporters' in the San Joaquin Valley and Southern California" the losers "Delta counties, taxpayers and the state's general fund."

The Stockton Record wrote last Sunday they are infuriated by the Governor's "staggering display of insensitivity" at his "presumption that this region is such an afterthought that it really doesn't matter whether its residents swallow the transparent greenwashing and legislative charade meant to conceal this late-model Owens Valley water grab."

There may be no more intriguing political battle in California than our struggle over water. From the destruction of Hetch Hetchy Valley to the emptying of Mono Lake, California’s politically powerful regions have cast sad nets during water wars, taking the life from politically weak and unpopulated regions while defiantly, shamelessly refusing serious consideration of conservation. 

The "conveyance without conservation or controls" policy evolved in the municipally divided Southern California region in the absence of an effective and impartial regional growth management board empowered to establish green belts between communities or determine a population capacity that protects the state's natural beauty while taking into account quality of life issues largely ignored since the day the water first began to flow.  Conveyance without controls, the great fear of Northern Californians opposed to Proposition 1 fifty years ago, the same voters who  overwhelmingly opposed the Aqueduct's bond measure, the Burns-Porter Act, in 1960, were proven right by history as that fear was realized.

Proponents assured skeptical Northerners that although SWP would be the costliest municipal project in the world at that time - larger even than Nasser's damning of the Nile, the aqueduct's water conveyance would be "The permanent solution to the state's water problems." 

Despite that assurance, without regional planning and population growth management to accompany the sudden abundance of water, the resource that once limited issuance of single family home building permits in communities like Manhattan and Laguna and other beach towns was exploited to exhaustion in just five decades. California's permanent solution, like most political promises, was quickly forgotten, and has now become what new canal proponents call today's water "crisis."

California taxpayers are still repaying the 1960 bond and the "success" of the aqueduct has yet to be defined by journalist or engineer.  

Yes, water was conveyed and the population exploded, but is the quality of life in Southern California improved, or is it more of a quantity over quality definition?  

Sure, the Orange groves no longer surround Disneyland, but there are a dozen congested freeways now to get you there.  

The congestion, smog and crowded freeways are as much a result of the state's last venture into water conveyance as the 750,000 acres of corporate farmland that once was worthless desert.

According to the State's Department of Water Resources archives, Northern Californians also were concerned that the water contracts created by the bond, required Northern California counties to provide certain amounts of water regardless of rainfall, while offering no financial or other compensation to the North for the conveyance.  There also was concern that the contracts allowed for additional water facilities if Southern Californians needed them in the future, opening the possibility of more water going south.

The fear of Northern opposition came true during the drought of the early 1970's when legislators from three Southern California counties, Los Angeles, Orange and San Bernardino, joined together to vote to exempt their counties from a statewide water rationing plan. Each evening news program in the Bay Area and Sacramento showed images of Southern Californians watering rock gardens and washing their cars, while Northerners were prohibited from watering their lawns or gardens, washing their cars or filling their swimming pools. 

Any Northerner who lived through those summers watching a beloved garden die while Southern Californians washed their rocks on television might never forget or forgive or support any future water conveyance. 

For southern parties, the Burns-Porter Act contained most of the guarantees they sought, including contracts for firm water supplies that future legislatures could not change, sufficient funds to pay for the facilities to deliver water to Southern California, and funds to construct only the facilities specified in the act and no others. The act included additional facilities if needed though those remained vague.

According to DWR's "history of SWP," Delta water users "were placated" by the Delta Protection Act of 1959, which ensured their water uses and promised them good water quality for all purposes.

Fear that 50 year old promise of protection has gone the way of the Aqueduct's "permanent" promise is the great concern of Prop 18's environmental opponents, and their skepticism over proponents new placating promises is well justified.  

The Burns-Porter Act, formally known as the California Water Resources Development Bond Act, was placed on the November 1960 ballot as Proposition 1 in a very different California of fifty years ago.  That difference, too, a quadrupling in population and erasure of open space, is the result of water conveyance.  The San Francisco Chronicle strongly opposed the proposition and California’s North-South regional rivalry was considered then to be a strong factor during, and as a result of, the Proposition 1 election.

Physically, the aqueduct runs down the state vertically, but its construction psychologically split California horizontally in half.  

I was just trying to recall the last time I stumbled upon a covey of native California quail.  I think it was 1978.  For better or worse, water conveyance turned the California we grew up in, to the California we live in today.  A vote on Prop 18 would have given me the chance to weigh in on which California I prefer.  Nothing would have kept me from November's ballot box.

But on November 8, 1960, the California Aqueduct's Prop 1 was approved - narrowly - by the razor thin margin of 173,944 votes from about 5.8 million ballots counted. Only one northern county supported the proposition--Butte County, site of Oroville Dam. California's North-South political scale would never again be so evenly balanced.

Today, of California's 38 million residents, nearly two-thirds of the state's population inhabits the same southern region where an indigenous population of only 100,000 could be sustained before water conveyance. The 12,000 percent increase in population in less than a century is entirely the result of the State Water Project's 34 storage facilities, reservoirs and lakes; 20 pumping plants; 4 pumping-generating plants; 5 hydroelectric power plants, 701 miles of open canals and pipelines which are maintained using $378 million dollars of SWP's $600 million dollar annual budget. The remainder, $222 million dollars, is the annual cost to repay SWP's construction bonds. 

The SWP provides what California's Department of Water Resources euphemistically calls "supplemental water" to approximately 27 million Californians and more than three quarters of a million acres of irrigated desert-turned-farmland. 

What Proposition 18 sought was a continuation of the same policy, without strong conservation, limits or controlled growth opposed by developers, only virulent, plague-like population growth estimates. In fact, DWR estimates that the additional conveyance of a new peripheral canal would be exhausted by California's projected population growth by 2030, a full decade before Prop 18's $11.1 billion dollar water bond would be paid off.

Water bond opponents say they will use the "time to educate the public" that Prop 18 proponents say was the reason for the 2012 delay to promote conservation over conveyance, arguing California history is proof that one without the other is not a solution, but rather an expensive continuance of a policy proven to fail.


Dan Aiello writes for the California Progress Report.

Here's an intelligent argument against water conveyance in our State... are there Unicorns, too?

The Water Bond will never fly so please don't get so rattled over its delay. Voters are not that stupid, and Dan... you are not going to see any California Quail sitting in a news room.

Agriculture is out of control with their public awarness programs such as Central Valley "The new dust bowl" or "The Latino farm worker's coalition" crying about lost jobs and "Farms vs. Fish", they think they have us over a barrel.

Californians need to see water problems for what they are.
With the majority of the water going to agriculture then agriculture asking us to develop more, that is extremely unreasonable and not going to happen.

Statewide agriculture exports account for 8.3 billion dollars and growing, for example bulk Almond prices are down by half and 80% of the product gets exported, infact of the top seven farm products in California more than half are sent overseas.

Wake up California! Water for food? I don't think so. Water for profit is more like it. The answer is simple, if the State would charge for it's water instead of giving it away they could earn revenue and restore threatened fisheries at the same time.

The facts are clear I'm not a econimist or a journalist but I can smell dead fish in this water policy.