GUEST COMMENTARY: The Quiet Death and Imminent Rebirth of a Water Bond

This commentary written by Jon Christensen.

A concerted effort to put a $4 billion bond measure for safe drinking water, drought preparation, wildfire prevention, and climate resilience on the March 2020 ballot in California died quietly in the state legislature last week. But the bond measure proposal will rise again early in the new year and is expected to pass out of the new legislative session in time to make the November 2020 ballot.

Until the final week of this legislative session, advocates for the measure believed that at least one of two bills introduced in the Assembly and Senate had a decent chance to get to the other house and the governor’s desk. An $8.9 billion bond initiative was filed in July by environmental advocates in part to put pressure on the legislature to move a more modest measure forward.

The two bills — introduced by Assemblymember Eduardo Garcia and Senators Ben Allen and Henry Stern — shared the same basic goals but differed significantly in their details. Those details will now be the subject of discussions, negotiations, and lobbying over the next several months so that a consensus bill can be introduced in January, pass out of the legislature and receive Governor Gavin Newsom’s approval by February, leaving enough time to mount a successful campaign for voter approval in the fall.

Voters appear willing by a wide margin to support such a measure. A poll commissioned by environmental advocates found that two-thirds (67%) of California voters would likely support a 2020bond measure to reduce wildfire impact, conserve and increase water supply, and provide flood protection. Providing safe drinking water, protecting drinking water quality and supplies, and protecting rivers, lakes and streams were listed as extremely or very important priorities for a bond measure by three-quarters or more of the voters surveyed, along with reducing the risk of wildfires near communities and providing warning and evacuation systems to help residents escape wildfires. And 79% of voters agreed that there is a great need (46%) or some need (33%) for a new bond, with only 18% saying there is little or no real need.

California voters are right. We do need a new water bond. Moreover, pairing funding for water with wildfire protection and climate resilience is smart politics. California voters know that the state needs to invest significantly in adapting to a changing world.

We also need to invest in redressing historical inequities that have left more than a million Californians without access to clean, safe, reliable drinking water on a daily basis, despite the fact that our state has declared a human right to water.

The good news is that we are on the right track.

A new UCLA study, “Striving for Equity in Public Investments in Water in California: An Analysis of Proposition 1 Implementation,” which I conducted with help from Green Info Network, found that funding from the last big water bond — Prop 1, a $7.1 billion bond measure approved by the voters in 2014 —is reaching disadvantaged communities that most need improvements in their water systems. Prop 1 has provided $389 million to 141 projects to improve drinking water and wastewater systems in disadvantaged communities across the state.

It has also provided technical assistance for 452 community water systems to develop plans to improve their drinking water and wastewater systems. Very few of those communities, however, will get implementation funding from Prop 1, since that money is nearly tapped out.

The Safe & Affordable Drinking Water Fund, approved by the legislature and signed into law by the governor this summer, will provide $130 million a year for the next decade to improve drinking water systems in crisis. But that fund was designed to cover costs such as operations and maintenance that can’t be covered by bond funding.

That’s why we need a new bond measure: to pay for actually building badly needed infrastructure improvements to fulfill California’s promise of a human right to water.

In our report, we share some of the important lessons to be learned from Prop 1:

  • Future bond funding for water and the environment should continue to incorporate specific priorities, goals, and technical assistance to ensure disadvantaged communities benefit from these investments.
  • All funding measures should be required to track whether funding is serving disadvantaged communities and households.
  • It takes time to carefully allocate and spend bond funding, especially in disadvantaged communities that require technical assistance to access funding. We need to understand and support the importance of taking this care and time.
  • And we need to continue to develop a narrative that justifies these ongoing and often overlapping bond measures as well as other funding for water, environment, and climate resilience needs, particularly in disadvantaged communities.

California voters understand all of this and first thing in the new year California legislators will work on giving them an opportunity to vote on it next year.

Jon Christensen is an adjunct assistant professor in the Institute of the Environment and Sustainability at UCLA.

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