California legislators struck a compromise. Democrats and Republicans negotiated a $7.5 billion water plan, placing it on the Nov. 4 ballot with just two no votes — a rare display of bipartisan cooperation in Sacramento.
For that, they deserve credit.
Their work product deserves consideration — and also careful scrutiny.
Before making a recommendation, we want to understand clearly what is and what isn’t included in this new bond, officially designated Proposition 1.
It is slimmed down considerably from the $11.1 billion behemoth drafted five years ago by legislators and then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and twice pulled from the ballot because of the dim prospects for voter approval.
But, like the plan that now sleeps with the fishes, Proposition 1 was put together behind closed doors, passed by the state Senate and Assembly and signed by the governor without any real opportunity for public scrutiny. Along the way, it swelled considerably from the $6 billion bond recommended by Gov. Jerry Brown.
As we’ve noted in the past, Sonoma County receives no water from the giant plumbing systems that supply the Central Valley’s agribusiness giants, Southern California’s sprawling subdivisions and some of our Bay Area neighbors. Neither do other North Coast counties.
But local taxpayers will share the burden of paying off the bonds, which will drain $500 million a year from the general fund. They need assurances that they aren’t getting soaked.
Sonoma County Water Agency officials say local residents will benefit from Proposition 1, noting the bond earmarks $26.5 million for water supply and water quality projects in the North Coast region and $65 million for such projects in the Bay Area. The county also can compete for flood control, recycled water and groundwater cleanup funds. There also is money for conservation and for watershed work,which could aid habitat restoration on the Russian River.
But more than a third of the $7.5 billion total is earmarked for surface storage, which almost certainly will mean a new dam east of Fresno and a new reservoir in Colusa County, both feeding State Water Project customers in the Valley and south of the Tehachapi.
The reservoir, said Assemblyman Wesley Chesbro, may mean larger diversions from the Trinity and Klamath rivers, reducing water supplies for salmon fisheries that support North Coast communities. “Increasing reservoir capacity will lead to greater demand for water from the Trinity at a time when severe and prolonged drought has significantly reduced existing snow packs,” said Chesbro, D-Arcata, who cast one of the two “no” votes.
In a major departure for water storage projects, as opposed to water quality and flood control projects, the costs of these new dams and reservoirs will be paid from the state general fund. The 1960 bond act that financed the State Water Project directed that beneficiaries pay those costs through their water rates. In Sonoma County, a property tax surcharge covers some of the costs of Warm Springs Dam.
In this third year of a severe drought, Californians are acutely aware of the value of clean, reliable water supplies. But as evidenced by shrinking reservoirs and collapsing aquifers, no amount of engineering will produce more rain and snow.
The question for voters to decide is whether the conservation and cleanup funds make this legislative compromise a good deal for the entire state.