Tuesday, January 16 , 2018, 10:22 am | Fair 60º


Local News

Legislators Back $11 Billion Bond to Remake California’s Water System

Local officials see positives in deal for new storage, conservation, restoration projects

A sweeping overhaul of California’s long-troubled water system was cleared by the Legislature early Wednesday after an all-night session and years of failed attempts.

Central Coast water officials generally had a favorable view of the measure Wednesday. They fully supported infrastructure improvements involving the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta and delivery of water to Southern California. Financing of the project, which includes an $11.1 billion bond, was cause for concern.

The wide-ranging package will affect how Californians receive, use and pay for water far into the future. It is the latest attempt to modernize and expand a system that relies on aqueducts, reservoirs and pipelines — some dating from the early 1900s.

The bond in the five-bill legislation narrowly passed the Assembly, although voters will have the final say next November. Assemblyman Pedro Nava, D-Santa Barbara, and state Sen. Tony Strickland, R-Moorpark, voted for the package.

“There is no reason why California shouldn’t have a dependable water supply,” Strickland said in an e-mail to Noozhawk. “Water is the life source for farmers, businesses, and families though out California.

“This water package will protect water rights, promote conservation in addition to ensuring that California has a reliable water supply for many years to come.”

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger also praised the deal.

“Water is the lifeblood of everything we do in California,” Schwarzenegger said. “Without clean, reliable water, we cannot build, we cannot farm, we cannot grow and we cannot prosper. I am so proud that the Legislature — Democrats and Republicans — came together and tackled one of the most complicated issues in our state’s history.

“This comprehensive water package is a historic achievement.”

Legislative leaders have been working for weeks on the complex package. To attract support for the bond, they added pet projects for every region of the state and virtually every water interest — which swelled the final tab to $11.1 billion. More than $2 billion of that total was added in the last few days of frenetic negotiations.

The deal’s major elements include:

» The $11.1 billion bond to pay for the overhaul, with $3 billion earmarked for new storage, which could be additional reservoirs and groundwater banking, and more than $2 billion to restore the environmentally troubled delta ecosystem. Other bond funding would pay for water recycling, drought relief, conservation and watershed protection.

» A conservation requirement to reduce overall urban water use by 20 percent by 2020. Agencies that fail to meet their targets would not be eligible for state water grants and loans. Agricultural entities must submit efficiency plans but would not face targets.

» New regulations to measure groundwater levels.

» Increased penalties for illegal water diversions, although specific penalties will be added later by the Legislature.

» Creation of a politically appointed seven-member council to oversee the delta, including consideration of peripheral canals to move water around the estuary southward to Southern California.

Bill Brennan, executive director of the Central Coast Water Authority, said that, in general, the blueprint is a good one — and long overdue.

“It’s clear that the delta needs a lot of assistance,” he told Noozhawk, “and water purveyors throughout the state are all in favor of fixing it.”

He also welcomed the inclusion of designated funding for groundwater storage, and not just dams.

“The key is to put more water in the ground during wet years and having the conveyance to get it out during dry ones,” he said, adding that his organization already has been exploring options for underground storage in the North County. The Buellton-based CCWA represents 12 water agencies in Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties, including the Carpinteria Valley Water District, Goleta Water District, La Cumbre Mutual Water Co., Montecito Water District, city of Santa Barbara and Raytheon in Goleta.

Rebecca Bjork, Santa Barbara’s water resources manager, said her department is intensely interested in the conservation goals, given the city’s participation in the 20-Gallon Challenge. The program promotes conservation measures aimed at reducing water use by 20 gallons a day. Click here for more information.

Santa Barbara has made good progress with conservation, she said, but cautioned that an additional mandated reduction “could be a reach” for the community. It was her understanding, she said, that the state was looking at ways to spread the requirement regionally so communities such as Santa Barbara would not be penalized for their existing best practices.

Brennan, meanwhile, was not entirely comfortable with the financing of the overall plan.

“I, like a lot of folks, are concerned that this is just one of several very large water bond issues in the last few years,” he said. “It’s actually a big concern, especially in this economy.”

In the past five weeks, in fact, California has borrowed more than $10 billion, eroding bond-rating companies’ confidence in the state’s ability to meet its obligations to bondholders. The state already has $60 billion of outstanding long-term general fund debt, and analysts estimate that voter approval of the latest bond would add as much as $60 million a year in debt service.

Noozhawk publisher Bill Macfadyen can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk.

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