California Doesn’t Need Another Water Bond

WaterIt feels every election Californians are voting on another water bond — and passing them. This November Proposition 3 is on the ballot, placed there through the initiative process. The state has plenty of unspent water related bonds. Shouldn’t we use the billions authorized for past water bonds yet expended before adding more billions to the state debt?

This bond would generate $8.89 billion for a number of water related projects including water quality, watershed and fisheries improvements, surface water storage and more at a total cost to taxpayers of $17.3 billion once the bonds are paid off with interest 40 years later. It’s hard to complain about the initiative’s goals but the costs should be put into context.

Since 2000 California voters have approved $31 billion in water and environmental projects using general obligation bonds. That’s money that comes out of the general fund used for all other services the state provides and GO bonds have first call on general fund revenues. About $10 billion of the $31 billion has not been allocated. That includes $4 billion that voters okayed as recently as the June primary election. In 2014, voters passed a ballot measure to reallocate unsold water-related bonds and authorized $7 billion for water purposes. Few have been sold by the state.

Citing a 2017 state treasurer’s report, the California Taxpayers Association notes that California has $83.24 billion in outstanding general obligation bond debt, with another $38.61 billion in authorized but unissued debt. If all bonds are sold, California would have $121.85 billion in general obligation bond debt, equivalent to nearly as much as the 2017-18 general fund budget. (Emphasis added.)

When do we say stop and use the resources at hand?

Of course, water is important to California’s quality of life. Water has been an important and contentious issue since the state was born and still is today. Just consider the fight that is brewing over Jerry Brown’s proposed tunnel project. But, by continually passing water bonds, especially those placed on the ballot through the initiative process, there is no overall management plan to deal with water issues.

Do voters consider the size of the state’s bond debt when voting on measures such as Prop 3? Hardly. If the proposal sounds good they support the idea and vote yes.

Californians should be concerned with water issues. But let’s spend money already authorized and let’s have better planning before jacking up the state’s general obligation debt.

This article was originally published by Fox and Hounds Daily

California’s leaky bucket theory of public improvement

The Tehama-Colusa Canal transports water to irrigate northern California agriculture and communities.

Unfortunately, Californians have come to expect significant levels of waste and incompetence when it comes to government programs. Just last week, we learned that the “new” $290 million computer system for the California Department of Tax and Fee Administration — in the works for over a decade — was having significant problems with tax filers trying to submit their quarterly returns. Despite California being home to Silicon Valley and the best high-tech minds on the planet, the State of California has a sorry history of failure when implementing big computer projects.

Although Will Rogers famously said it’s good that we don’t get all the government we pay for, Californians surely want more value for the outrageous level of taxation under which they are burdened. Other states provide better and higher levels of public service with much smaller tax burdens.

If one is carrying a bucket of water from a trough to a burning barn, it is best to have a bucket that doesn’t leak. If not, you’ll arrive at the fire with an empty bucket. When Sacramento carries taxpayer dollars to some popular project or program, they do so with a leaky bucket that virtually ensures that few dollars go to the intended target.

A story in the Sacramento Bee caught our eye last week about 2014’s Proposition 1, a $7.1 billion water bond measure approved by the voters. Not surprisingly, the bond measure was widely supported by a broad range of interest groups and received only token opposition. Given the high priority water has in the hearts and minds of Californians, such support is understandable.

However, much of the support for that bond was driven by the need for increased water storage, especially surface water storage, i.e., dams. So, although the measure passed fully four years ago, where are we on the construction of the promised projects and how much funding will they receive? In other words, how much leakage is going on here?

The biggest surface water project to be financed is the Sites Reservoir, in an area north of Sacramento, designed to store water from the Sacramento River.  For water users, especially in agriculture, the Sites project has been on the top of their wish list for decades. The good news is that the project will get the lion’s share of the $2.7 billion of Prop 1 proceeds dedicated to water storage. But the California Water Commission, which has been openly hostile to new dams, only awarded $816 million of the $5.2 billion cost of the project. And even that paltry amount was awarded after political pressure was exerted on the Commission which had originally recommend zero dollars for new surface water storage. …

To read the entire column, please click here.

California’s Water Storage Failure is Another Example of Dysfunctional Political Leadership

Lake Shasta Water ReservoirIn 2017, when cracks appeared in the Oroville Dam’s spillway, more than 180,000 Californians faced the prospect of floods. The emergency came a few years after Californians had overwhelmingly approved Proposition 1, a ballot measure to spend $7.1 billion on water-storage projects. In the drought-stricken Golden State, where runoff from rain and snowmelt races uselessly into the Pacific Ocean, the proposition won wide support, with voters approving it, two-to-one. But four years after passage, the state water commission has yet to assign a dime of funding for storage.

California once performed miracles in building infrastructure to quench the thirst of its residents and agricultural producers. In the 1960s, Governor Pat Brown oversaw construction of the San Luis Reservoir, capacity 2 million acre-feet. Approved for construction in 1963, it was completed by 1968—five years from start to finish. Those days are long gone. Any surface-storage project now faces years of litigation from environmental groups such as the powerful Sierra Club. At every stage in the construction process, delays of months or years ensue to resolve well-funded lawsuits launched under every conceivable pretext, from habitat destruction to inundation of Native American artifacts.

Nevertheless, the California Water Commission has finally announced its plans to fund new projects with the money from Proposition 1. Many Californians were surprised to learn that the proposition’s fine print stipulated that only a third of the money was ever intended to fund water storage. The rest is earmarked for other projects, ranging from habitat restoration to levee upgrades. Neither the commission nor most of the applicant agencies offer clarity as to how much additional storage the projects will add to California’s normal water supplies in an average year.

Clearly, some of the projects will make a tremendous difference to California’s parched water economy. The proposed Sites Reservoir, to be built just west of the Sacramento River, promises a capacity of nearly 2 million acre-feet; it alone could contribute a half-million acre-feet or more to the state’s water supply even in drought years, and much more in years with normal rainfall. Similarly, the Temperance Flat Reservoir will expand an existing reservoir on the San Joaquin River. Propitiously located south of the delta, this 1.3 million acre-foot construction could contribute 250,000 acre-feet or more to California’s water supply, even in drought years.

To appreciate how much capacity these two projects would add, consider that California’s total residential water consumption — indoor and outdoor combined — is only 4 million acre-feet per year. None of the other proposed projects comes close to matching these two, but in any case, it will be years before this new infrastructure can capture one drop of rain or runoff. The Sites Reservoir application anticipates completion by 2029; the Temperance Flat Reservoir, by 2033. Constant litigation, combined with years of legislation empowering unions and state agency bureaucrats to slow construction, have quadrupled the time required to build — and sent costs soaring. In 2018 dollars, Pat Brown’s San Luis Reservoir cost $672 million; the Sites Reservoir is projected to cost $5.2 billion — seven times as much, for a nearly identical facility.

To eliminate politically contrived shortages, Californians should embrace an all-of-the-above strategy to increase water supplies. They should select projects that yield the best return on investment while they take a hard look at what’s driving construction costs out of sight. Proposition 1 was a mandate to solve a solvable problem — store runoff to eliminate water scarcity. But California legislators have dragged their feet on implementation, betraying their constituents and exemplifying the state’s dysfunctional political culture. When it comes to water issues in California, not just quality of life, but life itself, is at stake.

Recent Years Prove We Need More Water Storage

Lake Shasta Water ReservoirThe first thing to remember about precipitation in California is that it’s unpredictable, as the past several winters have once again shown us.

Several years of severe drought ended in the 2016-17 winter with near-record rain and snow storms that filled the state’s badly depleted reservoirs.

The 2017-18 “water year,” as hydrologists call it, began with what seemed to be a return to drought but then, in March, the state experienced a steady stream of storms that added to the Sierra snowpack upon which Californians are so dependent.

It may not have been a “March Miracle” on the scale of 1991, when the mountains were virtually bereft of snow until one month of heavy storms ended the deficit. But what happened last month was at least a minor miracle, increasing the snowpack to more than 50 percent of average.

Combined with leftover storage from the previous year, California will enter the warmer months, when precipitation is rare, with fairly healthy water reserves.

Not only have the past several years demonstrated anew that “normal” is alternating periods of wet and dry, they also underscore just how dependent California is on its massive array of reservoirs, canals and other waterworks.

It collects water during the wet periods, as it did in 2016-17, and releases its reserves to maintain human life, wildlife and economy when conditions turn dry. Life as 39 million Californians know it would be impossible were it not for the state’s water system that federal, state and local governments maintain.

The state’s hydrologists believe that climate change will have a massive effect on our water supply in future decades, perhaps making the peaks and valleys of precipitation steeper and deeper and likely making more of it rain and less of it snow.

If, indeed, we will be getting more rain and less snow, it will degrade the snowpack as the state’s largest and most important reservoir. And that means we need to replace the snowpack with more manmade storage, allowing us to capture more winter rains that otherwise would flow to the ocean.

The need for more storage has been evident for decades, and although Southern California’s water agencies, particularly the Metropolitan Water District, have been diligent about adding it, Northern California, where most of the rain falls, has been negligent.

The last state water bond issue contained several billion dollars to jumpstart planning for new storage projects, particularly the off stream Sites reservoir on the west side of the upper Sacramento Valley and the Temperance Flat project on the San Joaquin River.

Together, they would add just over 3 million acre-feet of storage, or almost the equivalent of a new Lake Oroville.

However, state water officials have been somewhat lackadaisical about moving these projects along for reasons best known to themselves.

Meanwhile, there’s some movement on a long-standing proposal to raise Shasta Dam and expand Lake Shasta’s storage, now 4.5 million acre-feet – a project that is much more controversial because of its effects on land local Indian tribes consider to be sacred.

The recent drought was by no means the first. Gov. Jerry Brown’s first governorship four decades ago saw a very severe one. And it won’t be the last.

If we continue to drag our feet on building more storage, we will pay the price, and it will be a steep one.

olumnist for CALmatters