October 13th, 2014


Member, East Bay Municipality District Board of Directors

Director of Water Resources, California Farm Bureau

California State Assemblyman (D-Lakewood)

Science and Environment Reporter, KQED


In a few days, Californians will vote on a $7.12 billion water bond. Among other things, Proposition 1 would fund projects to improve public water systems, protect the state’s waterways and restore ecosystems, create recycling and desalination plants, beef up water storage systems and regulate our supply of groundwater.  A similar bill, Proposition 43, failed to get through the legislature in 2009.  But Proposition 1 has made it all the way past the governor’s desk and onto the ballot. What’s different now?

That was one question on the table at a recent forum hosted by Climate One at the Lafayette Library and Learning Center.

Lakewood State Assemblyman Anthony Rendon, one of the new bill’s authors, credits the ongoing drought for creating a much-needed sense of urgency.  “We have ignored our water infrastructural system for well over a generation in California,” he told the audience. “But I think this year, because of the drought, there was a renewed sense and a desire to do something.”

And this bill has a lighter price tag than Prop 43.  That one topped out at nearly $12 billion, largely because of so-called “pork” projects that upped the costs to taxpayers.  Tasked with reworking the 2009 bill, Rendon and his colleagues decided instead to start from scratch.

You could call it “Water Bond: The Sequel.”  

“We just blew it up and started all over again,” he says. “We didn't want to take a product that had been maligned, a product that nobody seemed to like, and just sort of tweak it, so we just started from zero.” To understand what mattered to Californians, Rendon conducted statewide “listening tours,” holding public hearings in communities from Eureka to Coachella, Seaside to Stockton and beyond. Although each area had different concerns, he says, there was a common theme. “The one thing that we heard was a sense of urgency -- what we heard was, let’s do something now.”

Asked by host Greg Dalton to summarize the bill, Lauren Sommer of KQED explains that “it’s a little bit of everything.  There's money in there for water storage…reservoirs, raising dams, or possibly groundwater storage.  There's environmental restoration.  There's groundwater cleanup for contaminated water, so people can use that water.” The bill’s vast buffet of water-related projects, she adds, is both its strength and its weakness. “[It’s] why we've seen some pretty strong support within the legislature and from the public. But as a lot of people have pointed out, because it's a little bit of everything, it's not going to solve all the problems we have here in California.  It's not going to really going to take a big bite of some of the big challenges that we have going forward.”

Those challenges include sustaining the state’s agricultural sector, which has been heavily impacted by the drought. “We've had hundreds of thousands of acres of land not fallowed but idled,” reports Danny Merkley of the California Farm Bureau.  “And that's a huge impact, not just on farmers and the farm economy, but on people that rely on agriculture in those areas, people that work on the farms, and related businesses.”  

Supporters hope that by giving the state more regulatory power, the bill will encourage communities to more fully enforce water restrictions. John Coleman, president of the Association of California Water Agencies and a board member of the East Bay MUD (Municipal Utilities District), says conservation begins at the local level.  “A number of agencies have put in drought restrictions,” he says, but adds that they’ll also need to adopt the state water board's measures, “to make sure that they can enforce the issues of the drought. It's up to them whether or not they want to do the $500 fine and things of that nature, but they need to be educating the public on how to conserve water, because we don't know what we'll have tomorrow.”

Still, to Assemblyman Rendon, the 2014 water bond signals a new era of water awareness in California. “I think this bond to a large extent is about ushering in another change of consciousness,” he says.  “For me, what was important about this bond was to emphasize a lot of regional solutions, such as water recycling, such as groundwater remediation, such as storm water capture.  

“A lot of the local solutions are solutions that are most economically efficient, they’re least intrusive on the environment, they’re the best thing for relationships between east, west, north, south…things that we ought to be doing and quite frankly, other countries are doing much better than we are.”

This program is generously underwritten by the S.D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation. 

- Anny Celsi
October 13, 2014
The Commonwealth Club of California