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Monday, August 18, 2014

New bipartisan measure on the ballot for California water crisis

by Traci Eatherton, WLJ Managing Editor

Rainfall in parts of southern California over the last few weeks provided a small reprieve from the state’s dry spell, but overall, the moisture didn’t have much impact on the ongoing drought.

New restrictions on the state’s water supplies have farmers and ranchers looking at all of their water options.

Last Wednesday, August 13, California lawmakers voted to place a $7.5 billion water plan on the November ballot for voters. The plan includes new reservoirs and water-saving technologies, along with some clean-up of contaminated groundwater.

Western Growers, a trade association, praised the deal, sharing that the plan would bolster the state’s water supply and infrastructure.

In a statement, Western Growers President and CEO Tom Nassif said he was delighted with the passage of legislation by the California Assembly and Senate, which includes $2.7 billion for water storage.

“We are especially pleased that the storage portion of this legislation is a continuous appropriation preventing the legislature from withholding funding. Passage of this legislation is an essential first step in adding capacity to our state’s existing storage infrastructure,” Nassif said.

“This legislation replaces the existing bond slated for this November’s statewide ballot. Our Association will work diligently with Governor Jerry Brown to garner support for the initiative.”

The California Farm Bureau Federation (CFBF) has been watching the water crisis in the state, and the developments at the state’s capitol closely.

“Placing this water bond on the November ballot gives Californians a chance to provide more water for our cities, for food production and for the environment,” said CFBF President Paul Wenger.

The legislation signed by Governor Brown replaces the current $11.1 billion water bond on the November ballot. The bipartisan legislation passed the Senate 37-0 and the Assembly 77-2 and includes $7.12 billion in new debt, plus the repurposing of existing unspent bond funds of $425 million for a total of $7.545 billion. None of the repurposed bond funds will be taken from existing projects.

The bond provides for water use efficiency and recycling, groundwater cleanup and management and $2.7 billion for additional water storage. It invests in safe drinking water, particularly in disadvantaged communities, and provides for watershed restoration and increased flows in some of California’s most important rivers and streams.

“Water is the lifeblood of any civilization and for California it’s the precondition of healthy rivers, valleys, farms and a strong economy,” said Governor Brown.

“With this water bond, legislators from both parties have affirmed their faith in California’s future.”

Wednesday’s last minute vote delayed Monday’s printing of voter guidelines, in the hopes that an agreement would be reached.

Lawmakers also voted to rename the water bond from Proposition 43 to Proposition 1 to increase its visibility and viability with voters.

Environmental groups were concerned that the bond money would fund the contentious Sacramento- San Joaquin River Delta tunnel proposal known as the Bay Delta Conservation Plan, but lawmakers said the bond is “tunnel neutral,” which was a critical component of the compromises.

State Assemblywoman Connie Conway (R-Tulare), the Assembly’s minority whip, said that Proposition 43 is a viable alternative to put on the ballot if lawmakers in Sacramento can’t agree on a better water bond measure, and state Sen. Bob Huff (R-Diamond Bar) said Proposition 43 would be an acceptable alternative to doing nothing.

On his website, state Sen. Andy Vidak (R-Hanford), who co-authored SB 1013 with fellow Sen. Jim Nielsen (R-Gerber), shared concerns over the time crunch.

Vidak shared in a web post that the people of California want the legislature and the governor to come to a consensus on a water bond, and that is the intention of this proposal.

“We will not settle for a water bond that doesn’t provide a critical and sustainable water supply. Let’s negotiate an agreement that works for all Californians or let the people vote on the bipartisan water bond that’s already on the November ballot. It’s time to lead, not delay.”

In January, Vidak, a Visalia native, introduced a $9.2 billion water bond, but it failed to pass.

“Our caucus has continued to work with Democrats on an alternative water bond, but they have not offered any viable solutions.

Our legislation provides a statewide approach to improving water management, and it truly meets the coequal goals of water supply reliability and [San Joaquin] Delta ecosystem restoration,” Vidak’s statement continued.

Jack Rice, CFBF associate counsel, recently warned of unintended consequences from some of the other laws that have been written and could be hastily passed and implemented.

“Figuring out how to improve groundwater management in California requires figuring out the best possible solution for a highly complex problem,” Rice said. “That doesn’t mean throwing legislation together and passing it before people even have a chance to understand the implications of how a new groundwater management framework will operate. Poorly conceived and executed changes to groundwater management would be very disruptive.”

Last Wednesday’s vote marked the end of more than five years of often difficult negotiations according to Wenger, who said it also marks the beginning of a campaign to encourage Californians to invest in the state’s water system.

“The severe water shortages we’re currently experiencing result from 30 years of neglecting our waterstorage system. That neglect is magnified by the drought, and it’s time to reverse that pattern of neglect. Placing this water bond on the November ballot gives Californians a chance to provide more water for our cities, for food production and for the environment,” Wenger said.

“There’s been a lot of discussion the past few days about the amount of money in the bond that will be devoted to more storage,” Wenger said. “That discussion has been important, and helped convince the governor to support more investment in storage than he had originally. The bottom line is that this bond represents the state’s largest investment in water storage in more than 30 years, and it couldn’t come at a more critical time.

“As the drought has shown us all too well, we have lived too long with an outdated water-storage system,” he said. “We need to update that system to match changing weather patterns, in which more precipitation will fall as rain rather than as snow. Additional surface storage can capture those strong storm surges when they come, prevent flooding and bank that water for later dry times.”

Wenger noted that putting this rewritten bond measure on the ballot is only part of the solution.

“That’s why it’s important that the governor and the legislature were able to agree on this package,” he said. “We needed to have a bond with the best possible chance of passage. We look forward to the governor’s participation in the campaign for new water storage.” — Traci Eatherton, WLJ Editor