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Proposal would shift bullet train funding for use on new water projects

The state’s powerful agriculture industry and its political allies are gathering signatures for a November ballot initiative that would grab bond money earmarked for California’s bullet train and use it instead for new water projects.

Supporters believe the measure taps two politically powerful sentiments: growing public concern about the state’s future water supply amid a historic drought and increasing opposition to the high speed rail project, which is behind schedule and over budget.

Unlike past grass-roots efforts to kill the high speed rail project, the new proposed initiative has $2 million set aside for a signature-gathering campaign, backers say. And it has moved with such speed that it is barely on potential opponents’ radar screens.

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Fierce opposition certainly will come from rail proponents, the construction industry and environmental groups — which have deep commitments to preserving the $68-billion transportation project as well as existing water policy.

The initiative calls for the reallocation of about $8 billion in remaining rail system bonds approved by voters in 2008 and $2.7 billion previously approved for water storage under Proposition 1 in 2014.

Half that money would go to specific projects, including raising Shasta Dam by 18.5 vertical feet, expanding the San Luis Reservoir, building a new reservoir near the Sacramento River and a new storage system on the San Joaquin River.

The other half of the funding is not designated, but could be tapped for such projects as expanding the capture of storm runoff in urban areas.

In addition, the measure would make substantial changes to state water law via a constitutional amendment, setting domestic water use and irrigation as the first- and second- highest priorities — ahead of environmental conservation.

“Water is more important than rail,” said George Runner, a member of the state Board of Equalization who authored the proposition along with Sen. Bob Huff (R-San Dimas).

But the state, said rail authority spokeswoman Lisa Marie Alley,  would not only lose jobs, but may have to pay back billions of dollars in federal grants if it loses the bond money.

The effort is being run by the California Water Alliance, a Central Valley nonprofit backed by farmers. The group has hired Michael Arno — who runs one of the nation’s best-known petitioning companies — to gather the 585,000 valid voter signatures needed.  Arno said he has 500 to 700 people in the field on any given day collecting signatures, along with volunteers from Central Valley groups opposed to the rail project.

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Aubrey Bettencourt, executive director of the group, said it has commitments to meet a $2-million budget for the signature campaign. The secretary of state’s campaign fundraising website shows much less, about $250,000 in receipts since Jan. 1. 

“Two million dollars is real,” Runner said. “That is what we need to be able to get it on the ballot.”

If the measure does qualify, California’s $53-billion-a-year agriculture industry will probably haul out checkbooks to support it.

But the nation’s biggest engineering and construction firms would probably do the same thing to defend the billions of dollars expected to flow their way for the bullet train, which began construction in the Central Valley last year and is more than two years behind schedule.

The building industry underwrote the campaign to persuade the public to pass the bonds.

In addition, Gov. Jerry Brown has a campaign fund of more than $20 million, which he could use to defend what has become his signature project. Brown’s office declined to comment on the proposition.

Huff said he doubted Brown would fully commit those funds, noting that the governor was deeply interested in two other prospective ballot propositions and may recognize the problems he faces keeping high speed rail on track.

“Even he has to recognizing the waning support,” Huff said. “At some point, when you have a losing hand, you have to fold.”

A recent poll by Stanford University’s Hoover Institution found that 53% of voters would approve of shifting the rail bonds to water projects.

The $2 million collected so far to fund the proposition has come from unidentified agriculture interests in the Central Valley, where thousands of acres of land have been left fallow as water allocations have been slashed in recent years. The industry is also deeply resentful of the rail project’s impact on farms and processing plants.

Along every major highway in the Central Valley, signs plead for more water with slogans like: as “Crops grow where water flows.”

Environmental groups long have supported the bullet train and would strongly oppose the dam construction called for under the proposed initiative. They also certainly would dispute a constitutional amendment that downgraded the environment’s claim to water.

However, environmentalists also are growing weary of the high-speed rail project’s use of greenhouse gas fees — given that the train may not reduce carbon dioxide emissions in the state for decades to come.

The Sierra Club is on record opposing most of the projects that the proposal would fund.

Union positions on the measure are not clear. Although they have strongly supported the bullet train, unions may be indifferent as to whether jobs are produced by dams or a rail project. Labor has other competing interests.

“I don’t know if we will get involved in the fight,” said Robbie Hunter, president of the State Building and Construction Trades Council of California.

If passed, the ballot measure would create a nine-member board, appointed by regional water management agencies, that would control spending decisions.

Bettencourt said the proposal’s guiding principle is more water for every use.

“Conservation communities will get more water than they did before,” she said. “Environmental justice communities will get better water quality.”

But Jim Earp, a member of the California Transportation Commission who led the rail bonds campaign, said the water measure could have a difficult time because its backers were greedy.

“They have basically a deeply flawed measure,” Earp said. “They couldn’t resist overreaching. They couldn’t resist the temptation to rewrite water laws to benefit corporate farmers who are going to underwrite the campaign.”

The other critical issue, Earp said, was that water projects traditionally have been paid for largely by users — whether agricultural or residential.

“They are trying to shift the cost of water from users to taxpayers,” Earp said. “They might as well throw their money into one of the rivers they want to dam. All you have to do is create enough confusion and doubt in the voters’ minds that it won’t pass the smell test.”

Runner said the opposite was true, that voters will see the proposal’s inherent logic.

“This comes at a time when everybody is aware of the water problem,” Runner said. “You have water rationing and you are paying more for water. The average person doesn’t get high speed rail.”

ralph.vartabedian@latimes.com

Twitter: @Rvartabedian

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