November Water Bond Promises $8.7 Billion Towards Securing California’s Future

Jerry Meral

California voters are being presented with two upcoming water bond propositions in the June and November elections. In June, Prop 68 will present voters with a $4 billion Parks and Water Bond, and in November the Water Supply and Water Quality bond will present voters with an $8.7 billion bond. Recently, VX News sat down with Gerald Meral, official proponent of the November Water Bond and director of the California Water Program at the Natural Heritage Institute. Meral, who has previously directed the Planning and Conservation League and served as a Deputy Secretary of the California Natural Resources Agency, provided an overview of the types of drinking water, ecosystem restoration, and sustainable groundwater projects the November bond would fund.

Recently, the $8.9 billion water bond that you’ve been instrumental in crafting was certified for the November ballot. If passed, what would that measure fund?

Jerry Meral:  The bond funds state drinking water, which is a huge statewide need, and safe wastewater disposal, which is a big priority in disadvantaged communities. Some categories are what you would conventionally expect: wastewater recycling, de-salting of groundwater, water conservation, and watershed restoration. There are a total of 100 funding categories for water items in the measure.

The bond also funds implementation of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, a landmark bill that the state passed several years ago but hasn’t yet been fully implemented. It partly funds the repair of the Oroville Dam, which was a huge public safety problem, and the repair of the Friant-Kern Canal, which is a key water delivery element for more than a million acres of the best farmland in the world.

One interesting feature of the bond is its attention to Salton Sea. I daresay the Salton Sea is the single greatest threat to air quality in the United States. It’s got to be solved. This bond provides half of the funding needed for the state plan for this problem; the other half is in Prop 68, which is on the June ballot.

Given that bond measures are crafted by their sponsors, rather than through legislative process, share the stakeholders who have been involved in this effort aimed at the November ballot.

This measure was a very broad effort that took more than two years to put together. Conservation groups were instrumental in the first draft, and it reflects their work and their priorities.

We worked very closely with California agriculture. A lot of commodity groups were involved in this—fresh fruit, rice, cotton, citrus, and so on. They have a lot to say about water management.

We also worked closely with the Association of California Water Agencies and many of their member agencies, like the Friant Water Authority, Northern California Water Association, and Southern California Water Coalition, as well as with fish and wildlife groups, like Ducks Unlimited and the California Waterfowl Association.

You noted that on California’s June ballot is another water-related funding measure, Prop 68. What does Prop 68 fund, and what distinguishes it from your water bond going before the voters in November?

We certainly endorse Prop 68; it’s a good measure. Like our November measure, it funds safe drinking water, flood control, the Salton Sea plan, and water recycling. But it’s important to note that in every one of those categories, our research has shown that the need is substantially greater than these two measures combined.

One difference between our measures is that Prop 68’s strongest emphasis is parks. It has around $1 billion for various water purposes. Initiatives like ours are subject to the single-subject rule, so our $9 billion measure is entirely for water.

However, two things are not in our measure. One is funding for the Delta Tunnels project, which we deemed too controversial. Also, we did not include surface storage projects. Proposition 1 from 2014 had $2.7 billion for storage projects, and that process is still ongoing, so we did not want to compete with it.

Does your water bond align with the investment goals included in the governor’s Water Action Plan? Have you collaborated with water leaders in the state administration and Legislature on the bond’s provisions and priorities?

We have compared our measure to the governor’s Water Action Plan, and it’s fair to say that they are virtually homologous; there is no daylight between what we are doing and what the governor has said needs to be done. This bond is the funding the governor needs to implement his Water Action Plan.

He has not taken a position, and the state agencies have followed his lead. However, I will say that we did not ignore communicating with the state agencies, and they gave us guidance as to what they needed to ensure that we were doing the right thing.

You referenced earlier that implementing California’s Sustainable Groundwater Management Act is new to local governance. How is SGMA changing water management, and how might the water bond facilitate such change?

SGMA was a landmark bill for California; really, we are just catching up to other Western states. The goal is to preserve groundwater at a relatively stable level, and to not let it degrade in quality. This is a big challenge for California, as we have a state overdraft of more than 2 million acre-feet a year. That’s huge. We need to do much better about recharging groundwater.

Southern California is a leader in this, but a lot of the state needs to catch up. Facilities and pipelines need to be built to move floodwater to places where it can percolate into the ground. Quality remediation needs to be done to make groundwater more usable.

To some extent, we’re also going to have to take land out of production. Of course, our goal is to minimize that impact by doing everything else we can first. But even if we do everything we need to, still, it won’t be possible over the long term to irrigate as much land as we do today.

Elaborate on the significant investments planned to address the multi-decade challenges arising from the Salton Sea.

The Salton Sea is a wastewater sink. It was created when the Colorado River was accidentally diverted into that huge basin, and it’s kept alive by wastewater coming from the fields of the Imperial Irrigation District and the Coachella Valley Water District.

The Metropolitan Water District and San Diego County Water Authority have made deals with the Imperial and Coachella water districts to conserve water. They have done a lot: using drip irrigation, storing water when it’s not needed, and so on. That’s a good thing—we want to conserve water—but it also means less water is going to the Salton Sea, and so the sea is drying up. It’s losing its ability to produce fish and its value as a wildlife habitat is diminishing.

That’s bad enough, but equally importantly, as the sea dries, the lakebed is being exposed. This is the largest lake in Southern California, and once exposed, it will blow dust of biblical proportions south into El Centro, Imperial, and Mexico, and sometimes north into Palm Springs, Riverside, and all the way to Ventura County. It will be like the Owens Dry Lake before Los Angeles spent $2 billion to mitigate the impacts. This is a huge state priority. It just has to be solved.

Since the drought captured the consciousness of California voters, water management has been a priority of Governor Brown’s and subject of great interest for legislators and voters. Currently, Senator Bob Hertzberg is sponsoring SB 231, a Prop 218 fix that relates to water infrastructure, and LA County has proposed a parcel tax for the November ballot to fund stormwater management. In your opinion, will voters have the appetite to support both of these water measures?

I think the public is responsive to these needs. Proposition 1, a water bond the governor sponsored about four years ago, was approved by 67 percent of the voters and went through the Legislature almost unanimously. It passed even in areas like the Central Valley and the mountains where normally bonds don’t do very well.

Another recent example is Measure AA, which was a parcel tax measure to restore wetlands in the Bay Area two years ago. That passed with a 70 percent margin, which is almost unbelievable considering that people were voting to tax themselves.

For this measure, our polling shows well over 60 percent voter support. I think the voters get it. They may not know where their water comes from, or understand all the water problems in the state, but they do understand that it’s a dry state and that the water has to be brought in from a long way away.

Given all the bonds and taxes the public will be asked to vote on this spring and fall, do you expect voters to prioritize issues like housing, air quality, climate change mitigation, and water infrastructure? If so, how highly ranked is water?

Looking over previous bond acts going back to 1970, there’s not a lot of evidence that voters feel the need to prioritize. Generally speaking, if the economy is good, and people like the purpose, very few bonds fail. When it does happen, it tends to be because people don’t feel that the purpose of the bond is relevant to them or worth spending money on.

Is there any downside in relying heavily on bond measures to fund the state’s water infrastructure and climate adaptation needs?

This challenge is ancient. The problem is that government needs to spend money on the urgent needs we have right now—year-to-year funding of schools, for example. And yet, we also have to invest in infrastructure. The way the state does that is through bond acts. Water, parks, and rail—all the hard infrastructure projects are funded by bonds or special dedicated taxes.

Unfortunately, the amount that California spends on infrastructure outside of bonds has gone down. The state simply tends to spend on what they have to do this year, as opposed to building for the future. But without investment, our state’s infrastructure will collapse. How can we build for the future if we don’t have the right roads, schools, and water systems—all the things that Governor Pat Brown thought were so important?

On the November ballot with your water bond is the election of a new slate of state office holders. Does it matter much for water infrastructure who is selected to serve for the next four years?

Fortunately, when it comes to this year’s bond measures, the voters set those priorities, and it will simply be the job of whoever is elected governor to implement those priorities.

But if the water measures pass by a good margin, it will send a message to state leaders that voters think infrastructure is important, and that maybe they should consider investing more of the state’s general fund in infrastructure. I’m hoping that our electeds will be educated by the voters this November.

"There is no daylight between what we are doing and what the governor has said needs to be done. This bond is the funding the governor needs to implement his Water Action Plan." - Gerald Meral