By Adrian Covert, Vice President of Public Policy for the Bay Area Council.
A Kafkaesque scene is unfolding deep in the bureaucracy of the California Water Commission that could undermine efforts to adapt California’s water system for climate change and threaten the reliability of the water use.
Earlier this month, Water Commission staff recommended withholding voter-approved state funds from going to badly needed water storage projects, including new and expanded reservoirs and aquifer recharge projects. The recommendations come even though half of California has plunged back into drought, and virtually every scientist says the state will need more storage to adapt to a warming climate that’s producing more rain and less snow. The stakes are particularly high for the Bay Area, which imports half its water from the Sierra Nevada mountains, and which already has the lowest water use rates in California.
So, what’s going on here?
In 2014, state leaders put Proposition 1, a $7.5 billion water bond, on the ballot. The bond included $2.7 billion for new storage projects like dams, reservoirs, and recharging depleted aquifers. However, because nobody (understandably) wants to subsidize water for other cities or farmers, the storage money was limited to supporting the value of a water storage project’s public benefits, like recreation, environmental flows, and flood control. Rather than having politicians pick winners and losers, Proposition 1 also established a competitive process for awarding storage dollars through the California Water Commission—an advisory group of water experts appointed by the Governor. Following a savvy campaign that included commercials showing off full reservoirs, and with broad support from environmentalists, farmers, and cities, Proposition 1 was approved by more than 67 percent of California voters.
Today, 11 proposed projects from San Diego to the Sierras are competing for the $2.7 billion contained in Proposition 1 for new storage. The process is very competitive, with a combined ask from all the projects of over $5 billion. Nobody is going to get all the funding they want, and some projects might not get any funding at all.
The Bay Area has three projects in the running: the Los Vaqueros Reservoir Expansion Project in Contra Costa County, the Pacheco Reservoir Expansion Project in Santa Clara County, and Sites Reservoir in Colusa County. Together, the reservoirs would store water for over 7 million Bay Area residents and businesses, and help the region adapt to climate change.
But here’s the rub. After reviewing the applications, Water Commission staff estimate the 11 projects provide a mere $1.7 billion in public benefits combined. In other words, the bureaucrats are saying California is in the extraordinary position of having more money for storage projects than it knows what to do with. Some have even suggested that getting the remaining $1 billion out would require another ballot measure to amend Proposition 1. This defies logic and common sense.
Everyone can appreciate the difficulty of monetizing the value of public benefits, from healthy salmon populations to waterskiing. However, by setting an impossibly high bar for dispersing Proposition 1 dollars, Water Commission staff risk undermining the public’s trust in bond spending in general, including the two water bonds headed to the ballot later this year.
That would be disastrous for California, which relies on state bond funding for about 10 percent of all water infrastructure spending, and which must continue adapting its water system to address climate change. Over the coming months, Water Commission members will review staff recommendations and make decisions that will impact California for generations. Voters should reach out to the Water Commission, and request that they spend the money Californians gave them. You can submit comments at firstname.lastname@example.org