California drought and water bonds loom large at environmental meeting

150 150 Justin Ewers

Folsom Lake in January this year (Photo Credit: ewoerlen/Flickr)

There may be no more reliable indicator of where the state’s political conversation is headed—or what the hottest topics in Sacramento will be in the year ahead—than the Planning and Conservation League’s annual symposium, an event that has kicked off political debates in recent years on issues ranging from reforming CEQA to regulating fracking.

As California begins to face up to its next big challenge—what may be the state’s worst drought in 500 years—there may also be no better, more deserved time for a group of environmental leaders that have spent the last four decades pushing for water conservation and responsible environmental policy to say “I told you so.”

To their credit, this doesn’t seem to have occurred to many of the several hundred environmental attorneys, land-use planners, and nonprofit advocates who gathered in Davis this weekend for a meeting on how to build a more sustainable water future for the state.           

Instead, in a day-long symposium that brought together elected leaders, state agency experts, and representatives of water districts from all over California, the emphasis was on finding a way out of the water crisis. Not just by conserving water during the current drought, but by addressing many of the same, much-longer-term issues raised over the last year by the Economic Summit. Foremost among them: finding ways to deal with the fact that the state’s aging water infrastructure system, designed fifty years ago to serve a population of 17 million, is now providing water to a population twice that size and will likely be serving three times that many people before any major new infrastructure projects are finished.

“We do have a vision, we just need to explain it better”

“Our goal is to be solution-oriented. We want to bring the best and brightest minds together to think about what we can be doing. Instead of thinking of this as a crisis, think about how it’s an opportunity to change the way [the state does] business,” Bruce Reznik, executive director of the Planning and Conservation League, said this weekend. “We sometimes don’t do a great job in the environmental community of laying out our vision: We’re the group of ‘No’—no on BDCP, no on desalination, no on fracking. But we do have a vision; we just need to explain it better.”

With the governor declaring a drought emergency this month (calling for Californians to cut their water use by 20 percent) and with state lawmakers still developing more detailed drought-response legislation, much of the symposium’s focus was on the next major water policy question facing the state: what to do with a group of proposed water bonds moving toward the November 2014 ballot that would authorize the state to borrow between $6.5 billion to $11.1 billion to pay for a range of water projects.

The final water bond is likely to represent not just a huge pool of cash, but one that reflects the state’s highest water priorities for the next five to ten years. As a result, the bonds are being hotly debated, with groups like PCL actively touting the virtues of what they call a “4R approach” to water investments—spending money on projects that reduce (through water conservation and efficiency), reuse (harvesting rainwater, for example), recycle (by treating wastewater from homes and businesses), and restore water ecosystems.

At the conference, though, two authors of proposed water bonds, as well as Tim Quinn, executive director of the Association of California Water Agencies, defended what they say is another necessary component of state water policy: storage.

Avoiding the next drought: To store or not to store?

“There are a lot of things we have agreement on,” Quinn said. “With the drought, you have a scary situation on groundwater in California [with wells being dug daily in many areas]. Locals need to be held accountable for managing this water in a sustainable way. And if they don’t ACWA’s not going to stand between you and the state.”

Quinn tried to make the case that storage, too—an approach environmental advocates have opposed in the past due to the dramatic impact storage projects (i.e. dams) have on the environment—was also an important part of a comprehensive state water plan. This could mean not just the surface storage proposals that are non-starters for environmentalists, but smarter storage designed to replenish groundwater supplies during wet years.

“If you invest in conservation and you invest in storage, you don’t just have one unit, you have five if you combine storage with local resource investments in environmental smart ways,” Quinn said.

Asm. Anthony Rendon, chair of the Assembly’s water policy committee and author of one of the water bonds, outlined what he considers a politically viable ratio of investments: $1 billion for safe and clean drinking water (only a fraction of the $40 billion the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has said the state needs to spend in the next 20 years to ensure all California communities have access to clean water), $1.5 billion for infrastructure, $1 billion for integrated regional water management, $1 billion for the Delta, and $1.5 billion for storage.

“For me, the number one priority is drafting a good bond and one that will pass—not only by two-thirds of the Legislature but by voters,” Rendon said. “Obviously we’re in a terrible drought, and this situation will likely get worse in June and July…This bond is designed to help us address future droughts.”

Sen. Lois Wolk also includes storage in her bill, but emphasized how this money could be spent not just on building dams.

“We also want to look at sediment behind current dams and seismic upgrades for existing dams so that when it does rain again, we’ll have increased storage capacity in the existing system,” Wolk said. “There are a number of things that can be done. We need storage, there’s no doubt about it.”

Making sure water bond money is used wisely

For the bonds to pass, supporters on all sides also acknowledge they will need to convince voters that this money—“one of the largest bonds in history,” said Sen. Wolk—will be spent wisely. That means in ways that support the environment, prevent water shortages in future droughts, and also produce an acceptable value for the dollars invested. This is also a top priority of the Economic Summit Infrastructure Action Team, which is developing a range of new approaches to ensuring major public works investments focus on results.

Both Wolk and Rendon have already taken steps in this direction—prohibiting earmarks, for example, that would allow lawmakers to fund local pet projects. Sen. Wolk’s bill also does not include a continuous appropriation, giving the Legislature the opportunity to decide each year during the budget process whether to approve specific spending plans. (While this may increase accountability in theory, of course, it is also likely to add a political element to the debate around each bond expenditure—something that could result in the funding of projects for reasons that have little to do with their return on investment.)

Another issue, for both bonds, is making sure the money actually gets to water projects—a basic step that has been a problem in past state bonds. “That’s a very serious issue, and I know there’s general frustration with how the money gets out, how long it takes,” said Sen. Wolk. “We’re still struggling with that.”

Going back to the drawing board

The most pragmatic view of the challenge ahead and the choices the state must make may have from Peter Gleick, president and cofounder of the Pacific Institute, a nonprofit research group.

“We have a limited ability to change what we have. But we also have a growing awareness that what we have in place today isn’t working,” Gleick said, pointing out that Australia, another major economic power forced to contend with a dry environment, faced a similar conundrum during a 9-year drought that started in 2001. “By the end, they were doing things they couldn’t have conceived of at the beginning.”

Over the next year, groups like the Planning and Conservation League—with the support of the Economic Summit—will face similar questions about what’s possible, what’s palatable, and ultimately, what will get the job done in California.


Justin Ewers

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