Also published at The Fresno Bee.
As we head into the end of session, the retooling of the water bond package from 2009 will be one of the largest issues facing the Legislature.
While water may not be a "sexy" topic for many parts of the state, I know it is first and foremost in the minds of many in our region. We know California has already taken too long to get started on rebuilding our water infrastructure and we must address it immediately. Our water system was built for a much smaller California in a much simpler time and has not kept up with growth or our environmental regulatory scheme.
A catastrophic failure of the delta levees looms before us; the farming community is already bracing for another drought; and our need for safe drinking water increases as our population grows.
In 2009, the drought reached such a level that over a quarter-million acres of productive farmland had to be fallowed. Farmers couldn't plant in areas where they knew that there would not be enough water to make it to harvest.
As a result, Central Valley farming communities saw their unemployment skyrocket well past 40%. The state held drought relief emergency food distributions in Firebaugh, Huron, Mendota, Selma and San Joaquin. To date, those communities continue to feel the repercussions. Mendota has the highest unemployment rate in the state at 33.9% and San Joaquin is in the top five with 30.2%.
Since joining the Senate, I resisted changing the 2009 water bond package because the initial deal reached was a rare bipartisan effort that took four years to achieve.
I now realize that the economy has reduced the desire for voters to pass large bond packages. In addition, the state has yet to show that we are proper stewards of their funds, especially when they are seeing media coverage of the tremendous cost overruns and delays with the Bay Bridge and the controversies surrounding high-speed rail.
As an engineer, I have been astounded by the actions that have led to the problems with the Bay Bridge. If we ask voters for billions more, we have to make sure that the projects provide defined benefits with minimal cost. As a result, we must reduce the cost of the package to make it easier for voters to understand and support.
One of the best ways to do so is to ensure that the bond package includes significant increases in surface storage. We must invest in projects like Temperance Flats that will greatly help our water problems in the Valley. Ultimately, we have to keep water in the water bond. The longer that we allow the water to run off during good years, the more susceptible we are to losing jobs and food production during drought years.
When it comes to trimming the package, there are numerous items that do not increase our water supply, including:
- $30 million earmarked to the state Department of Parks and Recreation for grants for watershed education facilities.
- $20 million set aside for the Baldwin Hills Conservancy, which manages land for recreation and wildlife and is the Los Angeles district represented by then-Assembly Speaker Karen Bass.
- $125 million earmarked for the California Department of Forestry for forest restoration and "to provide for climate change adaptation."
- $75 million for the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy to "protect the Los Angeles River watershed."
- $250 million to partially pay for removing dams on the Klamath River that have nothing to do with California's water supply, but do benefit PacifiCorp., the dams' operator, which is owned by billionaire Warren Buffett.
Cutting those earmarks out of the bond quickly saves half of a billion dollars.
I spoke at the Latino Water Coalition's Delta Water Summit at Fresno State on Aug. 3. They convened a robust panel of federal and state elected officials to discuss what can be done now. Everyone on the panel agreed that we need this bond in order to increase storage.
If we are going to reduce the amount of the bond, let's first take a look at the programs that do not provide our state with more water.
Everyone agrees that our water system is in need of rebuilding. We just need to find the political will to ensure that it happens.