California needs a water measure that works

A canal in the Central Valley carries water to Southern California. There are currently three bills under consideration in the state Legislature to put a multibillion-dollar water bond measure on the ballot.
(Russel A. Daniels / Associated Press)

If lawmakers could send voters a November bond measure that would guarantee 150 inches of winter snow in the Sierra every year, Californians would certainly pass it, even if it cost a few billion dollars. The snowpack feeds the reservoirs and aqueducts that slake the thirst of Northern and Southern California, water the crops that power the economy in the Central Valley, and sustain the state’s essential but sensitive heart and lungs in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta.

But our state senators and Assembly members can’t write such a bond, so they’re instead reworking a 2010 water measure that they keep polishing but pulling off the ballot in the quite reasonable belief that voters weathering a deep recession would reject a package larded with spending for pet projects. With the economy recovering, California needs a bond on this year’s ballot that’s stripped of obvious pork and nice but superfluous extras, such as museums and visitor centers, but with enough funding for projects that meet our statewide water needs.

There are now actually three water bond bills, reflecting California’s fractious regional competition for water security. Assembly Bill 1331 is by a Southern California Democrat, Senate Bill 848 is by a delta-area Democrat, and SB 927 is by a Central Valley Republican. Each bill bears some hallmarks of its author’s regional or political perspective.


The job of the authors and their colleagues in the coming week will be to broker a deal that offers each faction enough to secure their political buy-in to a unified water bond without wasting tax dollars — as precious in their way as liquid acre-feet — on items that could wait or that ought to be locally funded.

Southern California, especially the San Fernando and San Gabriel valleys, need funding for groundwater cleanup and storage, not merely to satisfy local need but to decrease the region’s reliance on imported delta water, which would instead be available for environmental repair in Northern California and agriculture in the Central Valley. Likewise, funding for delta levee repairs is as vital down here as it is up there. And every section of the state needs to move forward on reclaiming and recycling storm water and wastewater.

Some skittishness remains, based on the worry that Californians simply aren’t going to pass a multibillion-dollar bond. But the drought has refocused the state on its water needs, and voters may be open this year, more than any other, to consider an investment in water infrastructure — if only lawmakers can present them with a prudent, fair and useful measure.