Agencies piping water into homes that does not meet state or federal health standards would be first in line to receive $75 million in loans to be made available if Proposition 81 is approved by voters in the Nov. 8 election.
Proposition 81, the safe drinking water bond act, is one of three water bond measures on the ballot.
The two others, Propositions 82 and 83, would authorize $125 million in bonds to develop new water supplies and rebuild existing sewage systems or construct new ones.
Proposition 81 would provide $75 million to local water agencies to enable them to meet minimum safe drinking water standards. The measure is backed by a long list of supporters, among them the Assn. of California Water Agencies, Health Officers Assn. of California, the League of California Cities, and the Planning and Conservation League.
Rural Areas Worst
Officials say water systems that pose the worst health risks are in rural and recreational areas of the state. Officials in the Department of Health Services say some agencies are delivering water that is so contaminated that it poses an immediate health risk to anyone who drinks it. In other cases, the risk is less severe, even though cancer-causing chemicals have been found in the water supply.
Among the agencies with top priority are the Indian Wells Valley Water District near Palm Springs, the Truckee Donner Public Utilities District near Lake Tahoe and the city of Ukiah in Northern California.
In a survey last year of water agencies seeking loans under a $100-million clean water bond act approved in 1986, the Department of Health Services found that there are 114 water districts in the state that now are taking water directly from streams, rivers or open irrigation ditches and piping it into homes without any kind of treatment.
Under Court Order
The same report said four water systems now are so bad that they are under court order to provide safer drinking water, and another is considered a health risk by local medical authorities. Still another 232 water agencies are delivering water that is considered a health risk to consumers because surveys and laboratory tests indicate that raw sewage is seeping into drinking water systems.
Despite the need, state officials say the $75 million in bonds authorized under Proposition 81 would be parceled out to only about 125 of the 2,000 water agencies that have requested help to clean up their water systems. The water agencies have requested more than $1 billion.
Daniel Corrigan, chief of the financial assistance unit of the Department of Health Services public water supply branch, said, “The water agencies with the worst problems will have first call on the money.”
Since 1976, various bond measures have provided $350 million to help pay for improvements to state water systems. There are about 11,400 public water systems in California that are being regulated by state and county government agencies.
Water bonds are routinely approved by voters, often by overwhelming margins.
Opponents contend that the bonds are too costly, with interest costs nearly equaling the amount of money the bonds would raise when the payments are spread out over 20 years. The legislative analyst’s office estimates that the $75 million in bonds authorized by Proposition 81 would cost $200 million to pay off when $125 million in interest is tacked on over the 35-year life of the bond issue.
Opponents also say that customers of the individual water districts should be responsible for paying off the loans to local agencies and not taxpayers statewide.
“Bonds have become the politicians’ easy way to finance popular projects. But they are expensive. It would have been relatively easy for legislators to find a place in the ($44-billion) state budget,” said Jerry R. Douglas, a director of Topanga-Las Virgenes Resource Conservation District and one of a group of members of the Libertarian Party opposing the bond issues.
Although California currently is in the second year of a drought, Propositions 82 and 83 are not specifically aimed at relieving water shortages associated with dry years.
Water officials say the bond will help to enlarge water supplies, but they would have been needed even if California had normal rainfall this year. Even in wet years, the state’s growing population and the need to make improvements and repairs in aging water systems require massive investments, supporters say.
Proposition 82 would authorize $60 million in general obligation bonds, with local water agencies getting $40 million in low-interest loans for conservation projects and $20 million for the construction of dams, canals and reservoirs.
Money in Proposition 82 would be used to detect leaks in underground water pipelines. It would provide funds to line or reline water ditches and canals that might be losing water because of cracks or leaks. It would also provide money to water agencies that want to switch from open ditches to underground pipelines in efforts to stop water losses due to evaporation.
Proposition 83 provides $65 million for water pollution control and water reclamation projects. The money would be divided three ways. Small communities eligible for additional federal funding would receive $25 million to build sewage treatment facilities. A pot of $10 million would be provided to guarantee local water bond issues. Another $30 million would be provided to make loans for water reclamation projects that are not eligible for federal funding.