How Much California Water Bond Money is for Storage?    

Drought water cropsCalifornians have approved two water bonds in recent years, with another facing voters this November. In 2014 voters approved Prop. 1, allocating $7.1 billion for water projects. This June, voters approved Prop. 68, allocating another $4 billion for water projects. And this November, voters are being asked to approve Prop. 3, allocating another $8.9 billion for water projects. This totals $20 billion in just four years. But how much of that $20 billion is to be invested in water infrastructure and water storage?

Summaries of how these funds are spent, or will be spent, can be found on Ballotpedia for Prop. 1, 2014, Prop. 68, 2018 (June), and the upcoming Prop. 3, 2018 (November). Reviewing the line items for each of these bonds and compiling them into five categories is necessarily subjective. There are several line items that don’t fit into a single category. But overall, the following chart offers a useful view of where the money has gone, or where it is proposed to go. To review the assumptions made, the Excel worksheet used to compile this data can be downloaded here. The five categories are (1) Habitat Restoration, (2) Water Infrastructure, (3) Park Maintenance, (4) Reservoir Storage, and (5) Other Supply/Storage.

California Water Bonds, 2014-2018  –  Use of Funds

The Case for More Water Storage

It isn’t hard to endorse the projects funded by these water bonds. If you review the line items, there is a case for all of them. This November, voters will have a chance to approve $200 million to restore Salton Sea habitat, a sum that joins the $200 million of Salton Sea habitat restoration approved by voters in June 2018 in Prop. 68. This November, voters will have a chance to approve $150 million to turn the Los Angeles River back into a river, instead of the concrete culvert that was completely paved over between 1938 and 1960.

Who would be against projects like this? But Californians are heavy water consumers in a relatively arid state. Habitat restoration and park maintenance spending must be balanced against spending for water infrastructure. And conservation mandates must be balanced with investments in infrastructure that increase the overall supply of water. Here’s how Californians are currently managing their water:

Total Water Supply and Usage in California

As can be seen on the above table, residential water consumption represents less than 6% of California’s total water diversions. Indoor water consumption, only about half of that. Yet conservation measures imposed on California’s households are somehow expected to enable more water to be returned to the environment. Even with farmers, where conservation measures have the potential to yield far more savings, putting more irrigated land into agricultural production easily offsets those savings.

Not only does conservation fail to return sufficient water to the environment for habitat maintenance, but there is a downside in terms of system resiliency. During the last drought, when households were asked to reduce water consumption by 20%, it wasn’t an impossible request to fulfill. But as these reductions in consumption become permanent, far less flexibility remains.

California’s climate has always endured periods of drought, sometimes lasting several years. Meanwhile, the population continues to increase, farming production continues to rise, and we have higher expectations than ever in terms of maintaining and restoring healthy ecosystems throughout the state. We cannot merely conserve water. We need to also increase supplies of water. Ideally, by several million acre feet per year.

How Much California Water Bond Money is for Surface Storage?

Prop. 1, approved by voters in 2014, was called the “Water Quality, Supply, and Infrastructure Improvement Act of 2014.” It was marketed as necessary to increase water storage in order to protect Californians against droughts, and was overwhelmingly approved by over 67% of voters. But only about one-third of the money actually went to water storage, and it took nearly four years before any of those funds were allocated to specific storage projects. It was only this month, July 2018, that the California Water Commission awarded grants under their “Water Storage Investment Program.”

A review of these grants indicates that only two of them allocate funds to construct large new reservoirs. The proposed Temperance Flat Reservoir will add 1.2 million acre feet of storage. Situated south of the delta, it will be constructed on the San Joaquin River above a much smaller existing dam. It is estimated to cost $2.7 billion, and the California Water Commission awarded $171 million, only about 6% of the total required funds.

The proposed Sites Reservoir is situated north of the delta, west of the Sacramento river. It is an offstream reservoir, meaning that it will be filled using excess storm runoff pumped out of the Sacramento river during the rainy season. It is designed to store up to 1.8 million acre feet of water and is estimated to cost $5.2 billion to construct. The California Water Commission awarded $816 million, a large sum, but only about 16% of the total required funds.

Two other surface storage projects were approved, expansion of the existing Los Vaqueros and Pacheco reservoirs. Both of these reservoirs serve water consumers in the San Francisco Bay Area, both are supplied water via the California Aqueduct, and both expansion projects are estimated to cost not quite a billion dollars – $795 million for Los Vaqueros and $969 million for Pacheco. The California water commission awarded Los Vaqueros $459 million, and they awarded Pacheco $484 million.

When you consider surface storage, the total capacity of a reservoir is a critical variable, but in many ways more significant is the annual “yield.” This is the amount of water that on average, over decades, the reservoir is planned to deliver to water consumers in normal years. While the Los Vaqueros and Pacheco reservoir expansions combined will add roughly 250,000 acre feet of storage capacity, most of this added capacity is to save for drought years. Los Vaqueros may actually yield up to 35,000 acre feet per year in normal years; Pacheco may yield around 20,000 acre feet per year in normal years.

With respect to annual yields, the case for the much larger Sites and Temperance Flat reservoirs becomes more compelling. The Temperance Flat Reservoir is projected to yield 250,000 acre feet of water in normal years, the Sites Reservoir, a massive 500,000 acre feet. To put this in perspective, 750,000 acre feet represents 20% of ALL residential water consumption in California, or, put another way, each year these reservoirs will yield a quantity of water equivalent to 100% of the reductions achieved via conservation measures imposed on California’s residents during the drought. But will they ever get built?

According to spokespersons for the Sites and Temperance Flats projects, some federal funding is expected, but most of the funding will be from agricultural and urban water districts who will purchase the water (as well as the right to store surplus water in the new reservoir) as soon as its available. The projects still require congressional approval, and then will face a multi-year gauntlet of permit processes and the inevitable litigation. If all goes well, however, both of them could be built and delivering water by 2030.

How Else is Water Bond Money Being Used to Increase Water Supply?

All three of the recent water bonds had some money allocated to invest in water supply. Prop. 1 in 2014, in addition to investing $1.9 billion in surface water storage, allocated $1.4 billion to other projects intended to increase water supply. The projects they approved are either intended to store water in underground aquifers, or fund advanced water treatment and recycling technologies which have the practical effect of increasing water supply. While it isn’t clear from these groundwater storage proposals how much water they would then release in normal years, it appears that cumulatively the projects intend to eventually store as much as 1.0 million acre feet in underground aquifers.

At a combined cost total cost of under one billion, the aquifer storage projects just approved appear to be more cost effective than surface storage. It is also a critical priority to recharge California’s aquifers which have been drawn down significantly over the past several years, especially during the recent drought.

Prop. 68, the “Parks, Environment, and Water Bond” passed earlier this year, while mostly allocating its $4.0 billion to other projects, did allocate $290 million to “groundwater investments, including groundwater recharge with surface water, stormwater, and recycled water and projects to prevent contamination of groundwater sources of drinking water.”

The upcoming Prop. 3, the $8.9 billion “Water Infrastructure and Watershed Conservation Bond Initiative” that will appear on the November 2018 ballot, invests another $350 million to maintain existing, mostly small urban reservoirs, along with $200 million to complete repairs on the Oroville Dam. Prop. 3 also includes $1.6 billion to otherwise increase water storage and supply, including $400 million for wastewater recycling and $400 million for desalination of brackish groundwater.

It is important to emphasize again that all of the funds allocated in these three water bonds are paying for what are arguably worthwhile, if not critical projects. $6.3 billion for habitat restoration, $6.2 billion for water infrastructure, $1.6 billion to maintain our parks. But despite the worth of these other projects, Californians urgently need to increase their annual supply of water to ensure ecosystem health, irrigate crops, and supply urban consumers. And to address that need, out of $20 billion in water bonds passed or proposed between 2014 and this November, only $5.8 billion, less than one-third, is being used to increase water supplies.

What Other Ways Could Water Bond Money Be Used to Increase Water Supply?

Clearly the most important region to increase water supply is Southern California. Two thirds of all Californians live south of the Sacramento River Delta, while most of the rain falls on in Northern California. One way to increase California’s supply of fresh water is to build desalination plants. This technology is already in widespread use throughout the world, deployed at massive scale in Singapore, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Australia, and elsewhere. One of the newest plants worldwide, the Sorek plant in Israel, cost $500 million to build and desalinates 120,000 acre feet of water per year.

Theoretically – because capital costs in California are far higher than in most of the rest of the developed world – desalination offers a cost-effective solution to water scarcity. Uniquely, desalination creates new water, not dependent on rainfall, not requiring storage for drought years, not requiring redirecting of water from other uses. Imagine if Californians invested in desalination plants along the entire Southern California Coast. Eight desalination plants the same size as the Sorek plant would cost $4.0 billion to build if constructed for the same cost as the one in Israel cost. They could desalinate 1.0 million acre feet per year.

The energy costs for desalination have come down in recent years. Modern plants, using 16″ diameter reverse osmosis filtration tubes, only require 5 kWh per cubic meter of desalinated water. This means it would only require a 700 megawatt power plant to provide sufficient energy to desalinate 1.0 million acre feet per year. Currently it takes about 300 megawatts for the Edmonston Pumping Plant to lift one million acre feet of water from the California aqueduct 1,926 ft (587 m) over the Tehachapi Mountains into the Los Angeles basin. And that’s just the biggest lift, the California aqueduct uses several pumping stations to transport water from north to south. So the net energy costs to desalinate water on location vs transporting it hundreds of miles are not that far apart.

The entire net urban water consumption on California’s “South Coast” (this includes all of Los Angeles and Orange County – over 13 million people) is 3.5 million acre feet. It is conceivable that desalination plants producing 1.0 million acre feet of new water each year, combined with comprehensive sewage reuse and natural runoff harvesting could render the most populous region in California water independent.

Why is Infrastructure so Expensive in California?

The Carlsbad desalination plant in San Diego cost $925 million to build, and it has a capacity of 56,000 acre feet per year. That is a capital cost per acre foot of annual yield of $16,500. How is it that the Sorek desalination plant in Israel cost $500 million to build and has a capacity of 120,000 acre feet per year – a capital cost per acre foot of annual yield of only $4,100? Why did it cost four times as much to build the Carlsbad desalination plant?

This is the prevailing question when evaluating infrastructure investment in California. Why does everything cost so much more? The Sites reservoir is projected to cost $5.2 billion. An off-stream reservoir of equal size, the San Luis Reservoir, was constructed in California in the 1960s at a total cost, in 2018 dollars, of $2.3 billion. That all-in cost includes not just the dam, but also includes pumping stations, the forebay, the intertie to the California Aqueduct, and conveyances to get some of the water over the Diablo Range into the Santa Clara Valley. All of these costs (in today’s dollars) for the San Luis Reservoir, compared to the proposed Sites Reservoir, cost less than half as much. Why?

It’s easy to become enthusiastic about virtually any project that will increase our resiliency to disasters and droughts, improve our quality of life, steward our ecosystems, and hopefully create abundance of vital resources such as water. But when considering the need for these various projects, it is equally important to ask why they cost so much more here in California, and to explore ways to bring costs back down to national and international norms. We could do so much more with what we have to spend.

Edward Ring co-founded the California Policy Center and served as its first president.

Democrats seek $4 billion bond for water, flood control, parks

As reported by the Sacramento Bee:

As torrential rains and dangerous flood waters pummel large swaths of Texas and parts of Louisiana, California lawmakers are eying legislation to prevent similar damage from from the state’s own disasters.

Senate Bill 5 from state Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León would ask voters this upcoming June to approve a $4 billion bond to fund water, flood and parks projects across California.

To make it to the governor’s desk, it would need to clear the Assembly, where another water and open space bond from from Assemblyman Eduardo Garcia, D-Coachella, is under debate.

De León has characterized the bond as critical following the state’s historic five-year drought, and the 2017 winter storms that marked the wettest water year for California in more than a century.

If passed, bond proceeds would fund flood and water infrastructure projects, and expand and improve local parks and open space. It would allocate $550 million for water projects, $750 million for flood control projects such as levee repair and $2.6 billion for local and regional parks – including $800 million to build new parks in lower income communities. It would also fund deferred maintenance and other projects at California’s state parks system, including construction of new trails, plant and wildlife habitat restoration and coastal climate change adaptation projects. …

Click here to read the full article

Could the High Speed Rail Ruling Imperil the Water Bond?

Proposition 1, the $7 billion water bond, has broad support from both Democrats and Republicans.  Unlike the previous version of the bond – which had an $11 billion cost – the updated version has less pork and a few more promises for actual water storage.  While HJTA opposed the previous version (and indeed we signed the ballot argument against it) we have taken no position on Proposition 1.  Our neutrality is compelled, at least in part, by the recognition that California does indeed have legitimate needs for improvements in our statewide water infrastructure.

But now we have a new concern.

The California Supreme Court has recently declined to hear an appeal in one of the many lawsuits challenging the California’s High Speed Rail project.  This is a case we originally won in the trial court which blocked the issuance of the High Speed Rail bonds because the project bore no relationship to the project that was promised to the voters back in 2008.  But in a ruling that stunned taxpayers, the Court of Appeal reversed the trial court which correctly found that the Constitution expressly requires the state prove that issuance of the bonds is “necessary or desirable.”   This constitutional mandate ensures that government lives up to the promises it makes to the voters.

A proper interpretation of the California Constitution would require voter approval of, not just the amount of the debt, but specification of the project to be funded.  In our lawsuit, we argued that the current HSR plan so deviates from the proposal presented to voters in 2008 that voter approval of the former proposal should not be deemed approval of today’s plan.  We presented evidence showing that today’s plan is not the true high-speed train that voters were promised.  The HSR bond measure promised that the project would be built with federal and private matching funds.  But today’s plan calls for a system that is not truly “high speed” and is funded primarily by California taxpayers.  (And, by the way, the projected costs have now tripled).

So how does the high court’s inaction impact today’s Proposition 1, the Water Bond?  The fact that the judiciary will not uphold expressed requirements in a bond proposal raises the specter that, no matter what a bond proposal promises about what will be built with the bond proceeds, those promises are meaningless.  In other words, when California voters are asked to approve a bond, are they just approving debt for any purpose at all?  This is the very definition of a blank check.

As the result of California Courts refusing to uphold the language of the High Speed Rail bonds, the opponents of any bond proposal, at either the state or local level, need only point to High-Speed Rail to remind voters that promises in a voter approved bond proposal are meaningless and unenforceable.

Jon Coupal is president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association — California’s largest grass-roots taxpayer organization dedicated to the protection of Proposition 13 and the advancement of taxpayers’ rights.

This article originally appeared on

Prop. 1 Roots Go Back to Water Bonds that Built California

You might say that Proposition 1, the water bond, carries the DNA of bonds that promoted a growing and prosperous California. Water bonds helped build the Los Angeles Aqueduct in the early 1900s to make possible the growth of one of the world’s great cities. Another bond helped build the State Water Project half-a-century later, which, among other things, helped spur the state’s agricultural abundance. With the state facing a drought of staggering proportions, Proposition 1 would continue California’s long history of providing and caring for precious water resources.

The seven-plus billion dollar bond contains money for protecting watersheds, cleaning contaminated groundwater, and water recycling among other projects. But unlike water bonds passed in the last decade, the heritage that the Prop 1 bond shares with the bonds that helped build California is the $2.7 billion set aside for water storage projects, dams and reservoirs, almost 40-percent of the total bond.

As Governor Pat Brown’s biographer, Ethan Rarick, points out his book, California Rising, the Life and Times of Pat Brown, the physical aspects of the Central Valley and Southern California are good for neither plants nor people. Rarick dedicates a chapter of the book to the history of the State Water Project and the campaign for the bond that narrowly passed. Pat Brown set out to, in his own words, “correct an accident of people and geography.”

Pat Brown’s State Water Project stored water behind dams and moved the water to where it was needed. The storage aspect of Proposition1 is essential for building up the water supply as the drought deepens.

The dams that stored the water to help create the California we know today were considered so important that President John F. Kennedy came out to California to help dedicate not one but two dams.

President Kennedy dedicated the San Luis Dam that created the San Luis Reservoir in August of 1962. He was back a year later to dedicate the Whiskeytown Dam six miles west of Redding before a crowd of 10,000 people. Fox and Hounds contributor Joe Mathews wrote a history of Kennedy’s visit to the Whiskeytown Dam on the Zocalo Public Square website last year, which you can read here.

Kennedy talked about conservation during his Whiskeytown Reservoir speech. But he also said the dam would allow water to be used to “irrigate crops on the fertile plains of the Sacramento Valley and supply water also for municipal and industrial use to the cities to the south.”

In environmentally conscience California, dam building has been controversial. It was in the 1960s and opposition has certainly grown over time. Interestingly, the State Water Project was built with revenue from both the bond passed by the voters and from state money earned from offshore oil wells. Can you imagine such a proposal being pushed today? Certainly, it would meet loud opposition.

Still, voters and politicians recognize the need to have a safe and adequate water supply. Pat Brown’s son, Governor Jerry Brown, recognized the need and included storage in the water measure he negotiated.

That day in Whiskeytown, President Kennedy, speaking of the dams and reservoirs, acknowledged “the wise decisions that were made by those who came before, and the wise decisions that you are making now.” We will see if the voters of today continue to make wise decisions about water.

This piece was originally published on Fox and Hounds Daily.