September 27, 2014
U-T San Diego
by Marco Gonzalez

After years of debate and compromise, a statewide $7.5 billion water bond will be on the ballot Nov. 4. While the current drought and the expectation of future droughts spurred overwhelming bipartisan support from legislative leaders, some critics say the measure is not cost-effective and will add to California’s already-large debt burden. Below, a local environmental attorney makes the case against the measure. For a contrary view from a local water official, please go here.

Proposition 1 will be a burden on taxpayers and is a bad investment for San Diegans and all Californians alike. It will not mitigate the effects of drought, and does nothing to support long-term water self-sufficiency. Proposition 1 does not deserve your vote.

The cost of Proposition 1 is $14.4 billion after you add in all of the interest payments and would be a huge increase in California’s already massive $770 billion taxpayer indebtedness. While these numbers will likely seem small should our historic drought continue for another winter or two, the last thing we should do is blindly rush to spend billions on projects with almost no likely long term statewide or local water supply benefits. And, though we almost always support spending for outdoor recreation like hiking and bicycle trails, when it comes to spending limited taxpayer dollars on water infrastructure, we need to be wary of the fluff that was included in Proposition 1 to buy off legislators and the public.

Simply put, Proposition 1 would subsidize more of the same poor water planning that caused our current, precarious water supply paradigm. Touted as a compromise when compared to the first water bond proposal, this is not reason enough to warrant support. In scope, overall expense and approach, the majority of the projects to be funded remain unsupportable.

From a San Diegan’s perspective, Proposition 1 ignores the fact that we are at the end of the water pipeline, and among the most precarious regions susceptible to impacts of long term drought. With more than $5 billion allocated to projects on the San Joaquin River, Shasta Lake, and reservoirs in Contra Costa and Merced counties, San Diego and the rest of Southern California are being hung out to dry.

While there are numerous laudable water supply projects in the works regionally that deserve funding assistance, such as the city of San Diego’s Pure Water project to recycle highly treated wastewater into drinking water, Proposition 1 completely fails to prioritize such precedent-setting opportunities here in the south. Instead of providing substantial funds to help communities save water by replacing aged and leaking water infrastructure, the water bond focuses billions of dollars on Northern California dam building to subsidize corporate agribusiness growing the wrong types of crops, with outdated technology, in the wrong places for decades.

Despite billions of dollars on the table with this water bond, San Diego is earmarked to receive a paltry $17 million to support the San Diego River Conservancy’s parkway expansion and anti-pollution programs. And while we would typically support such efforts, they do nothing to better our drought resistance or stave off our need for imported water.

From a statewide perspective, Proposition 1 is classic “pork” — a waste of taxpayer funds for pet projects, many of which could have devastating environmental impacts. The corporate farm owners who will be the primary beneficiaries of the water bond will have no incentive to change their water-intensive crops, increase efficiencies, reduce runoff, or upgrade to modern and cutting-edge technologies. At the same time, we can expect the big oil companies to line up for water that would come from these projects to support their high intensity polluting activities in the Central Valley, such as hydraulic fracturing (aka “fracking”). And as taxpayers, we’ll foot the $15 billion debt (more than $360 million per year for 40 years) with very little water to show for it in the end.

With this same amount of taxpayer funds, we could restore recent cuts from the University of California’s budget, provide a full year of education for more than 39,000 K-12 public school students, cover the salaries of more than 5,600 teachers, or fund one-third of the state’s reserves. Proposition 1, no matter how good it might sound on paper, is not the best deal for Californians.

The California drought is a universal problem, and to comprehensively address it will require a drastic shift in how we use our rapidly diminishing water supply and create new, sustainable water resources. Gov. Jerry Brown and our legislators should be advocating more efficient water use practices, preventing the ongoing depletion of groundwater, helping cities to fix their aging and leaking water and sewer systems, and investing in real opportunities to produce new drought-proof supplies, while at the same time reducing ocean discharges of treated wastewater. These are the sustainable solutions that will give us a healthy return on investment of taxpayer dollars.

Gonzalez is executive director of the Coastal Environmental Rights Foundation and managing partner of Coast Law Group in Encinitas.

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