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Election 2014 FAQ: Prop 1 — the state's big water bond

Louvers at the Skinner Fish Facility in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta divert most fish away from pumps that lift water into the California Aqueduct. Decades of fights among government and water agencies, environmentalists and farmers, in courtrooms and conference rooms have culminated in the Bay Delta Plan, which will soon be open to public debate.
Mae Ryan/KPCC file photo
Louvers at the Skinner Fish Facility in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta divert most fish away from pumps that lift water into the California Aqueduct. Decades of fights among government and water agencies, environmentalists and farmers, in courtrooms and conference rooms have culminated in the Bay Delta Conservation Plan. Notably, backers of Prop 1, a state water bond measure, have taken steps to distance themselves from the BDCP.

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Governor Jerry Brown is spending his first political ads and major funding on two propositions. One is a major water bond.

"I've been around long enough to know the pendulum always swings in California, between wet years and drought, between booms and busts. And when it’s bad, people get hurt. Not enough water to grow crops. Deep cuts in vital services," the governor says, in a recently released ad, where he goes on to say that Proposition 1 will help "even out the boom and the bust."

Who's behind this ballot measure?

Well, in the short-term sense: the legislature. Legislation placing Proposition 1 on the ballot won bipartisan approval in Sacramento; the governor in mid-August.

Taking the long view, it’s been a five-year journey for this water bond to the ballot.

It has shrunk along the way. One big knock against the water bond, when the idea first emerged, was that it had too much pork hidden inside it.  The word “bloated” appeared in headlines, for example. Now it's about half the original size, reduced from about $15 billion to around $7.5 billion.

Other political concerns changed the water bond over time, too.

What would it do?

It’s the Water Quality, Supply and Infrastructure Improvement Act of 2014, and if those words sound familiar, it’s not just because they’re bureaucratic. Lawmakers have been working on a bond for years.

If this passes, the state of California would sell a general obligation bond worth $7.545 billion and use that money to pay for a comprehensive water plan – funding projects in six categories that are explained in more detail below.

I think I heard something about tunnels in the Delta. Would this water bond pay for tunnels?

Probably not.

However, those tunnels are part of the “Bay Delta Conservation Plan,” and that plan is one of those political issues that shaped the water bond we’ll vote on this fall. 

The BDCP revolves around the idea that a tunnel or tunnels will help move water around the Sacramento-San Joaquin Bay Delta to points further south, without worsening environmental degradation in that region brought on by water use, water pumping, and development. The plan came from water authorities in Southern California and in the Central Valley.

Those leaders say they aren’t trying to grab more water from northern California, but rather make existing supplies more reliable.

As the drought has continued, the BDCP has lost the momentum of support it once had. Some lawmakers are even introducing legislation to block the use of funds for the plan. And Proposition 1 contains language that specifically prohibits use of the bond money for tunnels.

Not coincidentally, backers of the water bond have taken steps to distance themselves from the Bay Delta Conservation Plan. In fact, one key supporter, State Senator Lois Wolk (D-Davis), said she would only support a “tunnel neutral” water bond — meaning, one that didn’t commit to the Bay Delta Conservation Plan. 

Where would the money go?

An important thing to know about this water bond is that the projects it would fund aren’t yet earmarked. They’ll be determined by a competitive process. Adding that provision helped dampen early criticism of the bond, which in its fattest form did include earmarking.

The proposition breaks potential water projects down into six categories:

  • $810 million for regional water reliability. That would pay for water conservation, stormwater capture and other programs that increase local and regional water supplies.
  • $725 million for water recycling. That includes projects to promote water reuse, which sometimes means taking salt out of water.
  • $520 million for safe drinking water. The focus here is on disadvantaged communities, particularly those in rural areas and those served by small, undercapitalized water services.
  • $900 million for groundwater sustainability. That can mean the protection and cleanup of groundwater basins to help achieve sustainability.
  • $1.89 billion for watersheds and flood management. That includes habitat and watershed programs, enhancement for rivers and creeks, watersheds in designated areas, state commitments to restoration and statewide flood management.
  • And the biggest chunk of money is the most controversial: $2.7 billion would go to “water storage projects.”

Why is 'water storage' the most controversial part of the bond?

Technically, water storage can mean natural storage, like in aquifers. But mostly, this is code for "dams."

Storing water behind dams has environmental repercussions, though dams aren’t just controversial with environmentalists. Two potential dam locations, one called Sites, the other called Temperance Flat, are finding re-ignited support with the water bond moving forward. Activists object to potential habitat destruction, though permissions for dams to move forward are likely to come only with strings attached for environmental restoration and conservation. They also say dams are too expensive to make good financial sense. (The federal Bureau of Reclamation is now taking comments on Temperance Flat, and says the project balances a range of interests.)

How much money's being spent on the campaigns?

Who's supporting it?

State Senator Lois Wolk. Sean Parker. Netflix's Reed Hastings. The Association of California Water Agencies. The Farm Bureau. Mainstream environmentalists, like the Natural Resources Defense Council. The agriculture industry, outside the Delta, anyway. 

It should be noted, however, that three of the five committees set up to collect money for Prop 1 are also funding the Prop 2 campaign, making it difficult, if not impossible, to determine how that money's being divvied up between the two measures.

That said, the biggest donor is the governor's political action committee, set up for this purpose and for the purpose of his re-election.

Who's opposing it?

Farmers, growers in the Delta. Worried about the tunnels. Food and Water Watch is opposed, particularly to the concrete and the dams the bond may enable. The Center for Biological Diversity. The Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations

What does Southern California get out of this?

Money and projects. But first, consider what Southern California needs: better water and cleaner water. The state's southern parts, especially along the coast, are highly urbanized, and residents face high potential for water shortages. The State Water Project didn’t deliver much in the way of supplies this year. The Colorado River system sends water to California, but the future of those supplies is uncertain, both because of drought and climate change, and because several states fight for resources from that river.

With that in mind:

  • Groundwater basin clean-up could be helpful to the San Gabriel and San Fernando valley communities. The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, Burbank Water and Power, and others want more money to clean up water in aquifers contaminated by past industrial activity. 
  • Water recycling projects could help local agencies better use water for landscaping and “purple-pipe” type use.
  • Projects to control and manage stormwater can improve local supplies by trapping and filtering rainwater closer to where it falls. It also can cut pollution at storm system outfalls along the coast – meaning less pinkeye for beachgoers.
  • And just about every agency in southern California wants more money to promote conservation – through residential rebates, like turf rebates, or commercial rebates for larger-scale efficiencies at office parks and apartment buildings.

How's Proposition 1 doing in the polls?

A Public Policy Institute of California poll puts 58 percent of likely voters say they would vote yes, 29 percent would vote no, and 14 percent are undecided.

It needs 50 percent to pass.

...a YES vote means...

You approve of the new water bond: the state will sell $7.545 billion in general obligation bonds for regional water reliability, water recycling, safe drinking water, groundwater sustainability, watersheds and flood management, and water storage.

...a NO vote means...

You reject the water bond: no bonds will be sold to fund the above-mentioned water-related programs.

What else is being reported on this measure?

And there's this explainer put together by SeePolitical, a nonprofit organization that aims to help voters by decoding complicated political issues with accessible video content:

Para ver en español, haz clic aquí.

Poll: How would you vote?

Poll: Are you in favor?

KPCC's online polls are not scientific surveys of local or national opinion. Rather, they are designed as a way for our audience members to engage with each other and share their views. Let us know what you think on our Facebook page,, or in the comments below.