Thursday, 14 August 2014

I'm happy the Legislature and Governor have agreed on a new water bond, but I will probably still vote against it.

The most important benefit of approving the new $7.5 billion water bond last night for the fall ballot is that it repeals and replaces the terrible, $11.1 billion bond leftover from the 2009 water package.  The 2009 bond was seen as unlikely to pass, but it had a chance with the drought deepening, and that would have been the worst outcome of all.


From my initial read, the new bond is a significant improvement in two major areas:
1. It is nearly $4 billion smaller, and some of the more egregious “pork” spending items are gone.
2. While the bond may not be 100% Delta tunnels neutral, it cuts $2 billion in direct funding for Bay Delta Conservation Plan (BDCP) habitat from the 2009 version.  It seems to me that this is a major blow to the already unlikely prospect that the BDCP/tunnels can develop a credible financial plan sufficient to gain regulatory approval of the project.  

While I will withhold making final judgement until I know more about the details, I don’t think these improvements are enough to switch me from a position of opposing to supporting a water bond.  

My main objection is that many if not most of the projects supported by this bond, even good and worthy projects, could and should be paid for with water rates instead of General Obligation Bonds that take money directly away from education, health and public welfare programs and are repaid with income and sales tax revenue. Funding for the safe drinking water crisis in the San Joaquin Valley is a relatively small part of the bond, and it should be funded as a stand-alone measure outside of the bond package.  

My second objection is the $2.75 billion in “continuous appropriation” for surface storage projects that have highly dubious public benefits, small water yields, and a very poor return on investment.  As I have discussed elsewhere, the Temperance Flat dam feasibility study is woefully deficient and the mammoth project is simply a bad investment.  My understanding is that Sites reservoir is a better project, but I have not yet reviewed it in depth.  If it is a good project, then the “continuous appropriation” is unnecessary and it should be able to compete against other storage projects and priorities.  [Update: I am told that the storage funding will be allocated by California Water Commission in a competitive process, and could go to something other than these dams.  I have heard major doubts of whether these dams are viable even with state funding support from the bonds.  There will be lots of political pressure on the CWC to fund reservoirs even if they are non-competitive as that is what many of the bonds supporters think they are voting for.]  

Another objection is the issue Restore the Delta is raising about the bond authorizing $485 million to be spent buying water upstream of the Delta to augment Delta flows - even as the state pushes the Delta tunnels that will reduce Delta flows.  I don’t know anything more about this then what RTD keeps sending to my inbox, and if it is illegal as they say then I won’t worry too much.  

I should also state that I am bothered that the water bond appears to have elbowed a school bond off the ballot.  Public schools are free and can’t be financed with user fees like water infrastructure (although new schools can be financed with impact fees), thus it is an appropriate use of a GO bond.  More importantly, California’s woeful support of education is a far greater problem to its economy and long-run prosperity than water.  The Governor has his priorities backwards on these bond issues.

Thus, I’m happy the Legislature and Governor have agreed on a new water bond to remove the beast from 2009 from the ballot, but I will probably still vote against it.  I suspect some of the legislators who voted overwhelmingly for putting the new bond on the ballot feel the same way and will not be campaigning for it.

About the Author

Ethan Jacob

Author & Editor

I am Ethan Jacob Executive Director of the Center for Business and Policy Research at the University of the Pacific, where I have a joint faculty appointment in the Eberhardt School of Business and the Public Policy Program in the McGeorge School of Law..

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