Capitol Journal

Pouring bullet train money into water development could backfire

At first glance, the idea is appealing: Scrap Gov. Jerry Brown’s troubled bullet train project and pour the money into water development.

Voters have soured on the Los Angeles-to-San Francisco high-speed rail line after authorizing it eight years ago.

It’s way behind schedule. Projected costs and routes keep changing. It needs tons more money. But private investors aren’t interested and the Republican Congress is hostile.

The time seems ripe for a ballot initiative to shift what’s left of the bullet bonds — $8 billion remaining from the original $10 billion — to needed water projects.

In fact, a recent poll by the Hoover Institution found that 53% of Californians favored the notion and only 31% were opposed.

But hold on. This proposal isn’t as simple as just trading the train for water. There’s a lot more to it.

It would shuffle California water law with questionable results for taxpayers, the environment and many farmers.

Interests you’d think would herald the proposal — some agriculture groups and water agencies — are forming coalitions to fight it.

Voter signatures are being collected to qualify the initiative for the November ballot. The sponsors are two Republicans: state Sen. Bob Huff of San Dimas, who’s running for Los Angeles County supervisor, and George Runner, a member of the state Board of Equalization. The campaign is being run by the California Water Alliance, funded with San Joaquin Valley agriculture money.

But not all San Joaquin farmers and officials like the idea.

“Don’t be fooled,” wrote Manuel Cunha Jr., president of the Nisei Farmers League, in a Fresno Bee op-ed piece. “Unfortunately, this initiative will not advance water projects, but instead set us back years and possibly kill projects.”

The Bee reported growing opposition among San Joaquin Valley agriculture, government and water leaders.

They’re not defending the bullet train. But they object to one key provision of the initiative: The grabbing of $2.7 billion in storage money from a delicately negotiated $7.5-billion water bond measure approved overwhelmingly by voters in 2014.

The $2.7 billion combined with the bullet train’s $8 billion would provide $10.7 billion for water projects. The money would be doled out by a newly created body composed of regional water managers.

It would replace the California Water Commission, which already is considering new dams on the San Joaquin River at Temperance Flat near Fresno, and close to the Sacramento River at sites in Colusa County. Cunha says creating a new bureaucracy “will put us back maybe a whole decade.”

The initiative also seems to be a full employment act for lawyers. It messes with long-established water rights.

It would amend the state Constitution to make domestic use the No. 1 priority for stored water and crop irrigation No. 2. And those would be the only listed priorities. Salmon runs, endangered species and waterfowl habitat? Not priorities. The environment would take a bath.

This, of course, has been the dream of some San Joaquin agriculture corporations for decades.

In the Sacramento Valley — the northern expanse of the Central Valley — there’s growing opposition.

“To say that all farmers believe the environment should come last in water priority is just not true and is insulting,” says Tim Johnson, president and chief executive of the California Rice Commission. “Farmers in the north who work closely with the environment find that offensive.”

For starters, rice farmers oppose the measure because they believe it could delay construction of Sites Reservoir.

“We’d have to start over from scratch,” Johnson says. Now, a concrete proposal is expected next year.

Also, because of the initiative’s tinkering with water law, rice growers are worried it could curtail their flooding of harvested fields to host migratory waterfowl.

The fall flooding is mutually beneficial: It breaks down rice straw and allows farmers to replant the next spring. And it produces a delicious soup of leftover rice and insects for migrating ducks and geese.

This isn’t crop irrigation — a priority under the initiative — but crop cleanup and bird feeding. Before the flooding began around 1990, crops were burned, badly fouling Sacramento Valley air. Now the flooding provides a paradise for hunters, waterfowl and bird lovers.

“We’re providing 60% of the food for 3 to 5 million geese and ducks,” Johnson says. “We flood 200,000 acres. Farmers get very excited about all the great stuff in our fields: sandhill cranes, bald eagles, egrets, great blue herons. Right now, lots of snow geese.”

“Californians historically care a lot about rivers and fish and wildlife,” says Jay Ziegler, policy director for the Nature Conservancy. “It’s part of our natural legacy and quality of life. This measure really puts at risk the balance we’re trying to protect.”

David Guy, president of the Northern California Water Assn., said his organization is “frustrated that folks are out gathering signatures and flat-out misleading people. This is a foolhardy initiative we can’t ignore.”

“It’s deceptively appealing, but unfortunate,” said Republican state Sen. Jim Nielsen of Gerber in the Sacramento Valley. “It’s opening a can of worms.”

Aubrey Bettencourt, who heads the sponsoring California Water Alliance, calls the initiative “a commonsense effort to provide water for people first” and says it is “a rare chance for the people … to tell the state to get its priorities straight. High-speed rail is an unpopular boondoggle.”

Should we shift rail money to water? That’s a legitimate argument. But this initiative also has other agendas that reach too far.

george.skelton@latimes.com

Twitter: @LATimesSkelton

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