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Legislature Approves Controversial Water Package and Budget-Busting Water Bond
Steve Evans, conservation director of Friends of the River, provides a superb analysis of the controversial water package and budget-busting water bond that the California Legislature approved in the wee hours of the morning on November 4. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger strong-armed the Legislature to pass the package to create a clear path for the construction of the peripheral canal and more dams to serve as monuments to his "manhood" and enormous ego. Unfortunately, some national environmental organizations supported this legislation, a toxic bundle filled with pork and environmental loopholes that will likely lead to the death of the largest estuary on the West Coast of the Americas.
November 5, 2009: Update
California Legislature Approves Controversial Water Package And Budget-Busting Water Bond
by Steve Evans, Conservation Director, Friends of the River
After a marathon special session that went well in the wee hours of the morning, the California Legislature approved early this week a controversial package of Delta water policy bills and a budget-busting $11 billion water bond. Its legislative supporters and some environmental groups hailed the complex package as fairly balanced and ambitious water reform. Friends of the River, other conservation and fishing groups, and Delta farmers opposed the legislation, noting that was rife with environmental loopholes and pork-barrel funding.
Responding to multiple alerts rolled out during the last hours of the special legislative session, Friends of the River members played a key role in securing the handful of no votes against the bad policy bills and water bond. Primarily from the Bay Area, Delta region, and the north coast, the legislators who took a courageous stand against intense pressure from their political leaders and water interests deserve our heartfelt thanks.
Supporters claimed the policy package wasn’t about “conveyance” – the new euphemism for the costly and destructive Peripheral Canal, a controversial facility originally rejected by state voters in 1982. But the legislation establishes the Delta Stewardship Council, to develop an overall Delta Plan to manage the Delta and operate its water facilities.
The bill specifically directs the Council, which will be unaccountable to the voters, to consider “conveyance” options for the Delta. In addition, the majority of the Council will be appointed by Governor Schwarzenegger, who has publicly stated that no new studies are needed and that we should start building the Peripheral Canal today. It seems likely that his appointments will support building the largest canal possible.
Friends of the River fears that approval and construction of a large canal will all but dry up the Delta by diverting fresh water flows from the Sacramento River around the estuary for export south to southern Central Valley agribusiness and urban developers in southern California.
Loopholes and vague language in the policy package substantially watered down its few good provisions. Although the package establishes as state policy reducing reliance on the Delta to meet California’s future water supplies, it fails to explicitly require reducing current Delta water diversions, which have degraded the estuary’s ecosystem and brought its native fisheries to the brink of extinction.
The bill directs the State Water Board to recommend, but says little about actually adopting, flow standards to protect the Delta ecosystem. Statewide monitoring of groundwater (the largest single source of water consumed in the state) became largely voluntary in the final version of the bill. Another bill policy to reduce per capita water consumption in the state by 20%, failed to establish any quantifiable reduction standard for agriculture, which consumes 80% of California’s developed water supplies.
Perhaps the most disturbing outcome of the marathon session was passage of the $11 billion water bond. Now approved by the Legislature, the general obligation bond will be placed on the November 2010 ballot for voter approval. Although the bond provides needed funding for regional water conservation, recycling, reclamation of polluted groundwater, and ecosystem restoration programs, it also provides billions of dollars to build new and expand existing dams that directly threaten California rivers, including Sacramento, San Joaquin, Mokelumne, Bear, and other rivers.
The State Treasurer and the Legislative Analyst have warned that the state can no longer afford to borrow money by selling more general obligation bonds. Approved existing bonds will suck up 10% of the state’s general fund revenues in the next few years, necessitating more cuts in state public safety, health, education, and environmental programs that have already been cut to the bone. This situation will worsen if an additional $11 billion in borrowing is approved by the voters.
Moreover, the $3 billion of the bond dedicated to funding new dams and other “storage” facilities is continuously appropriated, which means that this money will come off the top of general fund revenues every year, before any other state debts or programs are funded. If the state’s finances deteriorate even further, which seems likely, the Legislature will not have the option of delaying the portion of the bond sales funding new dams to manage its debt.
Public bond funding of new dams is based on the premise that there will be public benefits from the project. One of the projects slated for funding is the Temperance Flat Dam on the San Joaquin River. Because existing dams already store and divert up to 98% of the San Joaquin River’s annual flow, Temperance Flat, if constructed, will store only a minor amount of water 1 year out of 3. Even the Bureau of Reclamation, which historically overestimates dam benefits and underestimates dam costs, agrees that Temperance Flat would provide only a fraction of 1% in benefit for its multi-billion dollar cost (that is for every dollar invested, we’ll get back a dollar and a fraction of a penny).
Early in the special session, it seemed that fiscal sanity would reign in the Legislature as numerous Legislators indicated their opposition to the bond. But the political tide turned when the policy bills were approved, which prompted the need to adopt a funding mechanism. The last few of the necessary 2/3rds votes were secured when legislative leaders began earmarking pots of money in the bond for specific legislative districts. The entire Legislature ultimately succumbed to the worse kind of pork-barrel politics.
The organizations that fought furiously against passage of the Delta policy and water bond package includes Friends of the River, Restore the Delta, Planning and Conservation League, Sierra Club, California Sportfishing Protection Alliance, Clean Water Action, Environmental Justice Water Coalition, Delta farmers and water districts, and many others. This loose coalition is considering organizing a “No on the Water Bond” committee to educate the public about the financial and environmental ramifications of the water bond on the November 2010 ballot.
In addition, the policy bills will require renewed vigilance in several major quasi-public and public planning efforts. The Metropolitan Water District, Westlands Water District, and other water importers are developing the Bay-Delta Conservation Plan (BDCP). Despite the “conservation” part of its name, this is largely a plan for conveyance – that is building the Peripheral Canal. A draft BDCP and environmental impact report (EIR) is scheduled for public release at the end of 2009, with the final plan and EIR completed by the end of 2010.
It is anticipated that Governor Schwarzenegger will appoint the Delta Stewardship Council early in 2010 and the Council will initiate the overall Delta Plan required by the legislation. Among other things, the plan includes a requirement for the State Water Board to adopt flow recommendations within 9 months of bill enactment to protect and restore the Delta ecosystem, fisheries, and water quality. The question whether the Board will have the backbone to recommend and adopt tough Delta flow standards that will likely reduce exports.
So there will be plenty for supporters and opponents alike to do in the next 14 months. California’s water wars are not over; they’ve clearly just begun.