FILE – In this May 1, 2014 photo, irrigation water runs along a dried-up ditch between rice farms in Richvale, Calif. In dry California, water is fetching record high prices. As drought has deepened in the last few months, a handful of special districts in the state’s agricultural heartland have made millions through auctions of their private, underground caches that go to the highest bidders. With the unregulated, erratic water market heating up in anticipation of the hot summer months, the price is only going up. In the last five years alone, it has grown tenfold, shooting to as much as $2,200 an acre foot. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong, FILE)
PUBLISHED: | UPDATED:

California voters may be feeling a sense of deja vu when they consider Proposition 3, an $8.9 billion water bond on the November ballot to fund a long list of water projects — from repairing Oroville Dam to restoring Bay Area wetlands to helping Central Valley farmers recharge depleted groundwater.

Didn’t the voters recently approve a big water bond? Maybe two of them?

Yes. And yes.

In June, California voters passed Proposition 68, a $4.1 billion parks and water bond. About two-thirds of that money, however, was earmarked for state parks, open space, forests and beaches.

And during the depths of the drought in 2014, voters overwhelmingly gave thumbs-up to another water measure, Proposition 1. That $7.5 billion bond has funded water recycling, conservation and new dam projects, including $814 million for Sites Reservoir west of Maxwell in Colusa County.

But more is needed, say supporters of Proposition 3. California is an arid state with a growing population, a fragile farm economy, climate change threats and lots of fish and wildlife in need of help, they contend.

“We are not done fixing our water system,” said Jerry Meral, who wrote the proposition and has been its main promoter. “We need to bring it up to date.”

Coleen Willesen and her dog Felix, left and Fran Obrigewitsch of Oroville watch as hundreds of construction workers rebuild the spillways at Oroville Dam, the nation’s tallest dam, on July 30, 2018. (Bill Husa — Enterprise-Record)

Lots of people agree. Prop 3 has been endorsed by U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and Republican gubernatorial nominee John Cox, although Gov. Jerry Brown and Cox’s chief rival, Democratic Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, have not taken a position.

The measure is backed by union groups like the California Labor Federation, and business organizations, including the California Chamber of Commerce and the Silicon Valley Leadership Group.

Also endorsing it are most of the state’s major farm organizations, led by the California Farm Bureau Federation; and many of the state’s environmental groups, including the Nature Conservancy, National Audubon Society, Peninsula Open Space Trust, Save the Redwoods League and Save the Bay — but not the Sierra Club.

Critics call the 39-page measure a costly boondoggle. They have characterized it as a giveaway to the same organizations who helped write it.

Unlike the last two water bonds, which were put on the ballot by state lawmakers after public hearings, this one was written mostly by Meral, a former deputy secretary of the California Natural Resources Agency in the Brown administration, kayaking pioneer and longtime environmentalist who has organized other bond measures over the past 30 years. Meral shopped around the draft language to roughly 300 groups and many of them ended up donating to the campaign after making suggestions on what it should fund.

“It was all negotiated behind the scenes,” said Kathryn Phillips, director of Sierra Club California, which opposes Prop 3. “There are some things in there that are good, but not enough to justify all the bad things. A lot of the money is going to a few big farming interests in the Central Valley.”

Along with the Sierra Club, other opponents include the League of Women Voters, Friends of the River, Restore the Delta and Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon, D-Los Angeles.

The chief item that irks many critics is $750 million to repair the Friant-Kern Canal and the Madera Canal, which run across about 200 miles of the San Joaquin Valley from Chowchilla to Bakersfield. The canals are critical for irrigating farms and have been damaged by years of farmers over-pumping groundwater, which has led to the ground sinking.

Critics say the farmers should pick up the bill for the canals.

“Whoever benefits from a key water project should be the ones paying for it from their rates,” said Phillips. “You’ll have people from all over the state paying for a few factory farms in the Central Valley.”

But supporters say many of the growers are small farmers, and there are statewide interests at stake.

“Everything we eat comes out of there,” said Meral. “We just can’t let it go. You might also say, why should the state pay for urban water conservation? Why should the people who don’t have kids pay for schools? An agricultural water supply means we have a food supply. You have to invest in the state.”

FILE – In this Aug. 8. 2017 file photo, boats ply the waters of Emerald Bay of Lake Tahoe, near South Lake Tahoe, Calif. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli, File)

The No campaign has not raised any money. The Yes campaign has raised $4.7 million so far. Much of that has come from farm groups, such as Western Growers ($275,000), the California Fresh Fruit Association ($215,080) and the California Rice Industry Association ($200,000).

Large donations also have come from duck-hunting groups, such as the California Waterfowl Association ($495,000) and Ducks Unlimited ($400,000). There is significant money in the bond to fund wetlands restoration, which benefits ducks and geese.

The bond also includes $2.49 billion for restoring watershed lands, including $200 million for Sierra Nevada forests, $100 million for San Francisco Bay, $200 million for the Salton Sea, $150 million to restore the Los Angeles River, $80 million to remove Matilija Dam in Ventura County and $60 million for land conservation around Lake Tahoe.

There is another $2.12 billion for water recycling, storm water capture, upgrades to drinking water plants and conservation programs, such as funding lawn replacement programs and rebates for low-flush toilets.

There isn’t any money for new dams or for Brown’s controversial Delta tunnels plan. There is $200 million toward the $1 billion Oroville Dam repair, $250 million for Bay Area projects that could include expanding Los Vaqueros Reservoir, and another $1 billion for groundwater cleanup and management, much of which is expected to go to farm areas under a state grants program.

Bonds are like IOUs. The state sells them to investors, and then pays them back with interest, usually over 30 or 40 years, with money from the state general fund. Between 1993 and June 2018, California voters have approved 32 of 40 bond issues, an 80 percent success rate.

“This measure is basically a Christmas tree for a whole lot of people,” said Jay Lund, director of the UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences. “It’s hard to turn down a big pot of money. I would give it a very high probability of passing.”

blog comments powered by Disqus