$11.1 billion water bond for 2014 stuck in muddy waters

Muddy Waters album coverFeb 11, 2013

By Wayne Lusvardi

Is the third time the charm for an $11.1 billion water bond? Postponed two times by the California Legislature because of budget problems, the bond now is scheduled to be on the November 2014 ballot.

The bond is advertised to restore the ecology of the Sacramento Delta and possibly fund the construction of two new reservoirs — provided the reservoir projects are not killed by environmental lawsuits.  But what is to guarantee the funds won’t be turned into slush funds for NIMBY (not in my back yard) greenscaping projects, as happened to the last five water bonds in California?

California has spent about $18.7 billion — including bond interest — on five water bonds since 2000 and hardly has a drop of water to show for it.  The money mainly went to funding open space acquisitions, green landscaping and urban community gardens that appease NIMBY voters. And a portion of previous water bond funding from Proposition 84 went to funding activities that have nothing to do with water supply or conservation: subsidizing the governor’s Strategic Growth Council that is a clearing house for distribution of Cap-and-Trade funds.

If you want a winning political formula for passing a bond in California, just put the words “clean water,” “safe neighborhoods,” “parks,” or “coastal protection” in the title and the NIMBY voters will vote for it.  Witness the titles of the last five water bonds in California:

* Proposition 12: The Safe Neighborhood, Parks, Clean Water, Clean Air, and Coastal Protection Bond Act of 2000 — $3.8 billion (with interest);

Proposition 13: The Safe Drinking Water, Clean Water, Watershed Protection, and Flood Protection Bond Act of 2000 — $3.4 billion (with interest);

Proposition 40: The California Clean Water, Clean Air, Safe Neighborhood Parks, and Coastal Protection Act of 2002 — $4.3 billion (with interest);

Proposition 50: The Water Quality, Supply, and Safe Drinking Water Projects (Coastal Wetlands Purchase and Protection) Act of 2002 — $5.7 billion (with interest);

Proposition 84: Bonds for Clean Water, Flood Control, State and Local Park Improvements Act of 2006 — $10.5 billion (with interest). 


NIMBY voters will vote for nearly anything that enhances greenery and views around their homes.  The result is about $19 billion in waterless water bonds for NIMBY’s that have yielded no significant new sources of water to solve California’s perennial water crisis. And during that same time, California has run structural budget deficits and farms have suffered from court lawsuits to protect fish in the Sacramento Delta.

State legislators, newspaper journalists and water experts are clamoring for cutting out all the political pork in the proposed $11.1 billion Consolidated Water Bond for the 2014 state ballot. The bond has twice been taken off the ballot due to unfavorable public opinion.

About $2 billion is pure political pork to gain statewide support to get the bond passed. But cutting political pork out of the proposed 2014 water bond won’t assure Californians that the bond funds will produce any new water or restore the Delta ecology.  The proposed water bond is yet another blank check for the state Legislature to spend as it wishes within vague program categories.

Water bond advocates want the bond cost trimmed down by removing the political pork.  But without specified projects and water supply metrics, it can only be inferred that the 2014 water bond will be yet another NIMBY water bond full of jobs programs for environmentalists, nonprofit agencies and bureaucracies — but hardly a drop of water for farmers or cities.

Cutting out the fat in the water bond isn’t enough.  What is needed is binding words in the ballot initiative of how much new water Californians will get, at what cost, and from what specific projects.

If California Gov. Jerry Brown wants to exert leadership with the proposed water bond, he could start by un-muddying the waters about where the bond money is going and how much water will be produced.

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