California will vote on multi-billion dollar water bond


Gov. Jerry Brown (D) shepherded negotiations on a $7.2 billion water bond.  (Jose Luis Villegas/AP)

Voters in California will pass judgement on a massive $7.2 billion water bond package aimed at addressing a record drought after interest groups came to a last-minute agreement this week.

Gov. Jerry Brown (D) on Tuesday unveiled a compromise plan that earned support from interest groups ranging from conservationists to the Chamber of Commerce and agricultural businesses. Late Wednesday, legislators passed the plan by the required two-thirds vote after scrambling to meet a legal deadline for this year’s election.

The final amount the plan would spend is more than Brown’s initial $6 billion proposal, but far less than the $11 billion measure the legislature pushed. It includes $2.5 billion for water storage, like dams and reservoirs; nearly $1.5 billion for restoration projects around California watersheds; and $850 million to treat groundwater for drinking.

The package was designed to attract enough Republican votes to make it a bipartisan deal, and industry leaders said they backed it.

“Water is the lifeblood of the California economy. Now, in this time of severe drought, we need our elected leaders to come together to find the right balance between addressing our water crisis and reigning in debt,” California Chamber of Commerce President Allan Zaremberg said in a statement released by Brown’s office.

“Our window to prepare for future droughts is now. We need a well-structured Water Bond, one that invests in water infrastructure improvements and one that protects and restores our natural environment,” said Brian Stranko, Water Program Director at The Nature Conservancy.

But the bond drew criticism from other conservation groups, which are skeptical of Brown’s plan to dig tunnels that could pump water from different parts of the state. The Sierra Club and the Planning and Conservation League said provisions that would allow the state to purchase water could allow Brown to move ahead with the tunnels.

The measure prohibits money raised from bond sales from being spent on the tunnels. Environmental groups said certain loopholes would allow money to be spent on other projects that could advance the tunnels.

Republicans held out for more money for surface storage. They wanted $3 billion for new infrastructure, which would largely serve rural areas hit hardest by the drought. Farm groups supported the higher $3 billion number, but several said they would live with $2.5 billion.

Legislative leaders raced to finalize the deal by Wednesday, in the face of a looming deadline to print the state’s voter guide ahead of November’s elections. State law requires the Secretary of State to send out voter guides 40 days before a general election, which would have required printing to begin on Monday; but the legislature passed a measure giving the Secretary’s office two more days so they could finalize work on the bill.

The legislature also passed a bill that would reorder measures on this year’s ballot to put the water bond on top. Strategists think ballot measures with higher placements tend to earn more voter support.

The new measure will replace an $11 billion bond that was already on the ballot after a 2009 agreement between legislators and then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R). That measure would have added $750 million a year to the state’s debt service bill, an amount Brown called excessive.

California has experienced a record drought in recent years that has parched the state. Ten of the 12 water storage facilities around the state are less than half full, and more than three quarters of the state has been suffering extreme or exceptional drought for at least three months, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor, maintained by the National Drought Mitigation Center in Lincoln, Neb.


California’s drought situation, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor
Reid Wilson covers state politics and policy for the Washington Post's GovBeat blog. He's a former editor in chief of The Hotline, the premier tip sheet on campaigns and elections, and he's a complete political junkie.
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