More than two-thirds of California voters authorized the state to borrow more than $7 billion to improve a water system strained by more than three years of drought. Now the difficult job of smartly targeting problems and effectively implementing projects is beginning.
With that huge amount of money on the table, many government and non-governmental agencies began salivating before the polls opened Nov. 4. The fear of wasting billions of taxpayer dollars unwisely on poorly conceived plans that do not lead to a more sustainable water system was the most salient argument heard from the nearly 2.3 million Californians who voted against Proposition 1. We hope those fears do not bear out.
One of the challenges will be to direct funds to projects that are coordinated to have the greatest impact on some of the state’s most pressing needs. Yes, the list of needs is long and many problems won’t be completely addressed, but significant progress can be made on how California approaches its demand for water through treatment facilities, recycling, habitat restoration and storage.
The $520 million designated for clean drinking water and wastewater treatment has the potential to dramatically improve the lives of disadvantaged California residents, including many in the Valley. It’s astonishing that water flowing from the faucets in some communities does not meet safe drinking standards. The water may contain a variety of contaminants such as nitrates, perchlorate and arsenic, to name a few.
Water treatment facilities for poor, rural communities that don’t have safe water to drink should be high on the list of concerns for legislators returning to Sacramento this week.
One question: Out of $7.5 billion in the bond, is $520 million enough money to solve all the problems in many communities that don’t have adequate public water facilities? The answer is no, of course not. But the bigger question legislators will need to figure out is who will pay for maintaining the new facilities in disadvantaged communities after they are built. There is no money in the bond for continued maintenance.
The most controversial and costly aspect of the bond is water storage. There are two distinct camps on how best to invest the $2.7 billion earmarked for storage. One side wants to build new dams or increase reservoirs of existing dams. The other camp says the state can get more bang for its buck with groundwater storage. We believe that new dams are the smarter choice and that many voters who backed Prop. 1 did so with the expectation that dams would be built.
The California Water Commission, made up of nine members appointed by the governor, will decide which projects are the most cost-effective and provide the biggest improvement for the state’s water system. It will set criteria for projects and evaluate them over the next 18 to 24 months.
The commission should establish a thorough and transparent public process to evaluate proposed storage projects. The decisions on how and where to spend $2.7 billion for water storage pose the biggest risk due to political influence to waste this huge amount of taxpayer dollars.
With $7.5 billion on the table and the state in the fourth year of drought, it’s critical the taxpayers’ money is spent wisely.