Weighing the Water Bond: A Study of 2014’s Proposition 1

It’s hard to believe that people still power-wash sidewalks three years into California’s worst drought on record. But it’s even harder to believe that state lawmakers have hardly been better about solving our water problems. They’ve been working on a water bond for five years and barely managed to squeak one with a chance of passing onto the November 4, 2014 ballot.

A water bond seems like a no-brainer. California is parched, with much of our groundwater already at historic lows in April and with many reservoirs at levels far below historic averages in September, according to the state Department of Water Resources. And the $7.5 billion water bond — Proposition 1 — has widespread support that includes a good showing of environmentalists. But not everyone is convinced that this bond delivers what we need, or even that bonds are the best way to finance our water system.

Proposition 1 replaced Proposition 43, an $11.1 billion water bond put together in 2009 and placed on the 2010 ballot. But then lawmakers dithered, amending and delaying the water bond first to 2012 and again to 2014. The final blow came this summer, when polling showed tepid support for Proposition 43’s hefty price tag. Cutting the bond’s cost, however, would boost likely voter support from about half to nearly 60 percent, according to a late July survey by the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC). State bond measures must exceed 50 percent voter approval to pass.

With only weeks until the mid-August deadline for printing state ballot materials, lawmakers scrambled to negotiate a cheaper water bond. Replacing Proposition 43 on the ballot required a two-thirds vote in the Assembly and the Senate as well as the governor’s signature. The legislature agreed nearly unanimously on the $7.5 billion Proposition 1 and it was signed on August 13, 2014.

To supporters, Proposition 1 signals a new approach to meeting our water needs. “We’re at one of those famous turning points in California water policy,” said Timothy Quinn, executive director of the Association of California Water Agencies. “This is the first water bond to couple demand reduction with storage.”

Quinn thinks the bond’s storage provisions will boost much-needed groundwater replenishment. During super wet years, most recently 2011, there’s so much water that it pours through the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and out to sea. “There’s no place to put that water,” he said, adding that more storage would mean capturing more water for sinking into aquifers during rainy years. Quinn also sees the bond as jump-starting the state’s five-year Water Action Plan, the driving force for the first-ever statewide groundwater regulations that were adopted in September 2014.

But opponents see Proposition 1 as perpetuating the same old bad habits of water policy. “Our biggest objection is the money for storage,” said Tom Stokely, water policy coordinator of the California Water Impact Network (C-WIN). “It’s an outdated mentality that building more storage will mean more water — there really isn’t water to fill more reservoirs,” he said.

The state has over-allocated its surface waters by a factor of five, according to a study by UC Davis researchers Ted Grantham and Joshua Viers. They found that state allocations allow use of 370 million acre-feet of surface water per year, but that only 70 million acre-feet of surface water are available per year on average. Caveats include that water can be reused multiple times as it flows downstream, and that the study speaks to average but not extremely wet years.

Regardless of who’s right about whether new water storage would be a boon or a bust, it’s important to clarify that the bond doesn’t earmark money for reservoirs. “The bond says storage, not surface storage,” noted Heather Cooley, director of the Water Program at the Pacific Institute. Under Proposition 1, storage project selection would be up to the nine governor-appointed members of the California Water Commission. Groundwater recharge is considerably cheaper than reservoir expansion, at $90 to $1,700 per acre-foot versus $1,700 to $2,700 per acre-foot, respectively, according to Stanford’s Water in the West program.

Replacing the old water bond silenced a vocal critic: Sierra Club California signed the ballot argument against Proposition 43, but is neutral on Proposition 1. Other environmental groups are divided on the water bond. Supporters include the California League of Conservation Voters, Defenders of Wildlife, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and The Nature Conservancy. Opponents in addition to C-WIN include the Center for Biological Diversity, Friends of the River, and Restore the Delta.

If Proposition 1 passes, some of the money will be allocated through grants that the Bay Area can compete for, and some will be earmarked for specific uses that will benefit the Bay Area. Three-quarters of the flood protection money ($295 million) will go to the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, boosting security for the 30 percent of the Bay Area’s water that is delivered via the Delta. In addition, the Bay Area is guaranteed $65 million for local water security and climate change preparation. Rising seas could double the number of people at risk of flooding by the year 2100, especially in San Mateo and Marin counties, according to the California Energy Commission’s California Climate Change Center.

The Bay Area would also likely benefit from some of the $100-plus million earmarked for the California Coastal Conservancy, which protects and restores coastal watersheds and is funded primarily by resource bonds. Current Bay Area projects funded by the last resource bond, which passed in 2006, include restoring steelhead trout watersheds and San Francisco Bay wetlands. “We facilitated the massive wetlands restoration all around the Bay — tens of thousands of acres, including South Bay Salt Ponds,” said Amy Hutzel, the California Coastal Conservancy’s San Francisco Bay Area regional manager.

Win or lose, Proposition 1 is not enough to solve California’s water problems, according to the PPIC. “The drought has focused attention on the need, and the bond will help,” said Caitrin Chappelle, a PPIC research associate. “But it’s not the be-all and end-all.” The PPIC estimates that even if the bond passes, the gap between water needs and water funding will be up to $2 billion a year.

“California needs to think about going beyond bonds to finance the water system,” Chappelle said. Maryland has a parcel tax for stormwater control, Minnesota has a state sales tax surcharge for healthy watersheds, and Kansas, Missouri, and New Jersey fund their water systems partly with a surcharge on urban water use.

California could also think about investing more in water conservation, recycling, and reclamation, which the Pacific Institute estimates could save 20 times as much water as Los Angeles uses each year. A big drop in water needs would help us weather future droughts — as Chappelle pointed out, “You can’t buy rain.”


The Water Bond at a Glance

Proposition 1 would provide a total of $7.545 billion in bonds for water-related projects and programs. If California voters approve the measure, the state could sell $7.12 billion in new general obligation bonds, which are financed from the general fund rather than from new taxes. Another $425 million would be redirected from unsold general obligation bonds that voters previously approved for resource-related uses. The Legislative Analyst’s Office estimates that paying off the bonds would cost $360 million annually for 40 years.

Proposition 1 projects and programs include:

  • $395 million for flood control
  • $520 million for safe drinking water
  • $725 million for water recycling
  • $810 million for regional water reliability, including conservation and stormwater capture
  • $900 million for groundwater sustainability
  • $1.495 billion for watershed protection and restoration
  • $2.7 billion for storage


Robin Meadows (www.robinmeadows.tumblr.com) is the reporting fellow for the 2014-15 Water Education Initiative.

Created by the League of Women Voters of the Bay Area Education Fund to promote better understanding of regional water issues, the initiative is underwritten by the Association of Bay Area Governments, Bay Area Biosolids to Energy, the East Bay Municipal Utility District, the League of Women Voters of Marin County, Louise Anderson, the Marin Municipal Water District, Marion Taylor, the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, the Santa Clara Valley Water District, and the Sonoma County Water Agency.