Commentary: Commission must invest bond funds in water storage


Issue Date: February 14, 2018
By Danny Merkley
Danny Merkley
This land in the Sacramento Valley could ultimately contain Sites Reservoir, one of 11 storage projects under review by the California Water Commission. The commission will decide how to invest money for water storage contained in a bond passed overwhelmingly by California voters in 2014.
Photo/Christine Souza

More than three years ago, on Nov. 4, 2014, 67 percent of voters approved California Proposition 1, the Water Quality, Supply, and Infrastructure Improvement Act of 2014. The nearly 4.8 million Californians who voted for the bond did so knowing that new water storage was crucial for addressing longer and more frequent drought periods, punctuated by flashier storm systems.

On top of that, the governor and state representatives have made it clear they consider new water storage a key component in upgrading our water infrastructure.

In recent weeks, however, state agency staff members have thrown the bond funding process into some doubt—despite the expectations of the voters and their elected representatives.

Large water storage projects represent the only way to address California's changing hydrology and increasing population, coupled with expanding environmental restrictions on the current system. Much of our annual precipitation comes from a few wet storms, so we need to capture that in reservoirs for human and environmental benefits during dry periods.

The author of Proposition 1, Assembly Member Anthony Rendon, D-Lakewood, proved tireless in the effort to gather public input and achieve the balance needed for the bond measure to succeed. Rendon—who at the time chaired the Assembly Water, Parks, and Wildlife Committee and now serves as Assembly speaker—conducted 18 hearings throughout the state, with the California Farm Bureau Federation and county Farm Bureaus participating in many. The committee vice chairman at the time, Frank Bigelow, R-O'Neals, was also instrumental, working to make sure the final measure would provide real opportunities to create new water supply for California.

To place the bond on the ballot, legislative leaders in both houses and in both parties came together to approve the bond bill with near-unanimous votes and send it to the ballot before its ultimate, overwhelming passage.

It took years of dedicated effort by many inside and outside the Legislature, and by Gov. Brown and his team, to qualify and pass the Proposition 1 bond. Farm Bureau participated in and initiated hundreds of meetings with the current administration and the previous administration, with legislators and with other stakeholders. Uncounted hours have been spent in analyzing bill language, drafting language related to the bond measure, attending hearings and workshops, providing testimony in committee hearings, discussing the various proposals within the Farm Bureau membership, and much more.

Farm Bureau actively participated in developing and supporting Proposition 1 because it provides the first opportunity in decades to invest in upgrades to our aging water infrastructure, including adding new water supplies for California cities, farms and the environment.

The bond measure assigned the California Water Commission to review and allocate the $2.7 billion portion of Proposition 1 dedicated to the public benefits of new water storage.

After the measure's passage, Farm Bureau was invited by the executive director of the Water Commission to serve on the Water Storage Investment Program Stakeholder Advisory Committee—a large and diverse group of stakeholders who provided advice and recommendations to the commission on WSIP topics, including developing the regulations to quantify the public benefits of project proposals. Farm Bureau worked closely with water agencies and their representatives to seek regulations that would be as practical and effective as possible.

Given the weight of voter support behind Proposition 1 and the clear public interest in improving water supply, we were greatly disappointed to hear commission staff report that their initial scoring of the 11 submitted water storage projects fell short of providing the public benefits to qualify for bond funds.

In their initial analysis, the commission's technical reviewers, made up of staff from the Water Commission, Department of Water Resources, Department of Fish and Wildlife and State Water Resources Control Board, found that none of the proposals provide adequate, Proposition 1-eligible public benefits for recreation, flood prevention and wildlife refuges. The staff requested additional information regarding the projects' significant environmental benefits (see story). Opportunity remains to provide additional information through an appeals process to the commissioners themselves.

The preliminary scores raise concern about the methods state staff used to accurately and consistently measure the public benefits of individual projects. But stopping at this point to revisit and potentially revise the process could damage pending applications to the U.S. Department of the Interior for funding to acquire water for the environment. Restarting the process would also delay completion of vital projects that provide statewide water supply improvements and drought preparedness.

The road to upgrading our aging water infrastructure has been long and difficult, but it's now time for the California Water Commission to invest the funds for new water storage approved by the citizens of California.

(Danny Merkley is director of water resources for the California Farm Bureau Federation. He may be contacted at dmerkley@cfbf.com.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.