One Down, One To Go on Parks/Water Bonds

June 8, 2018 – – Californians this year will vote on not one but two park/water bond measures totaling $13 billion. Given that the state still hasn’t spent all of the $7.5 billion from the Proposition 1 water bond passed in 2014, it raises a crucial question: Does California really need another $13 billion in water bonds? As of December 2017, the state had allocated only about $1 billion from Proposition 1. About half of the total money available from the bond is dedicated to new water storage under a complicated new process that funds only the “public benefits” of such projects. The first dribble of money from that pot is expected to be awarded later this year.

Proposition 68, a $4.1 billion bond measure known as the California Drought, Water, Parks, Climate, Coastal Protection and Outdoor Access for All Act of 2018 passed by 56% on the June ballot. Nearly two-thirds of the money is destined for park and wildlife projects, not water projects. However, much of this money would indirectly benefit state water resources, such as projects along specific river corridors that would improve water quality. The Water Supply and Water Quality Bond (proposition number not yet designated) has qualified for the November 6 general election ballot and would allocate $8.9 billion for water projects. This bond is more strictly focused on water and wastewater projects. There is no money for parks, but there is money for watershed improvements all over the state.

The bonds do have some overlap in their funding. Both include funding for wastewater recycling (up to $390 million in Prop. 68 and $650 for the November proposition), an increasingly important source of drinking water for the state as public acceptance grows. There is also some overlap in funding to protect and enhance watersheds and rivers. For example, a state agency, the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, is designated funding in both bonds for river restoration projects. Numerous other waterways across the state would get money under both bonds, including the American River, the Russian River, the Guadalupe River and the Santa Margarita River. Notably, neither bond includes any funding explicitly for traditional water storage projects like new dams.

A lot of the funding from both bonds will only benefit select regions in California. For example, the November bond measure includes $200 million to help pay for repairs at Oroville Dam, which was heavily damaged by storms in February 2017. This money is being made available in case the Federal Emergency Management Agency doesn’t cover all the repair costs. The Oroville Dam is part of the State Water Project, which provides some water for about two-thirds of the state’s residents. The same bond includes $750 million to repair the Friant-Kern Canal. The canal is buckling because of heavy groundwater pumping in the San Joaquin Valley that caused the land to subside. This has compromised the canal’s water-delivery capacity which serves about 14 agricultural irrigation districts, which was damaged by a handful of groundwater users.

Similarly, a lot of the money for park projects in Prop. 68 will be spent in locations that most Californians will never visit. This is particularly so with the $725 million set aside to develop and improve local community parks. Virtually all bond measures contain funding like this that benefits a local area and not the state as a whole. Partly this is done to ensure voters in every part of the state find a reason to vote for it. It’s up to each voter to decide if the bond measure, on balance, is a good investment of their tax dollars.