By Lois Wolk
The Legislature will return to Sacramento in January and will immediately face a trio of questions about water.
* Can California break the gridlock and move forward on investing in a sustainable water supply for our future?
* Can legislators from every region of the state come together on an affordable plan that benefits everyone?
* Can we find common ground on the highest-priority solutions that support local and regional self-reliance while we avoid the expensive and controversial large-scale projects that voters will reject?
I believe the answer to all these questions is, “Yes, but it won’t be easy.”
In 2009, the Legislature passed an $11.45 billion water bond. It was too expensive and too controversial to ever pass with the voters. It was filled with pork and was seen as a threat to Northern California. Well-intentioned as it was, it should now be set aside.
It’s time to start over with a clean slate.
It’s time to focus on financing the most cost-effective local and regional projects that will deliver a more clean and reliable supply of water for all communities.
And it’s time to step away from funding projects that are prone to the controversy, delays and cost overruns we have seen recently in other major infrastructure projects. Voters aren’t in a mood for that.
The state should use its bonding capacity and low interest rates to provide financial assistance to local and regional projects that provide greater water supply independence while reducing reliance on environmentally fragile watersheds like the Colorado River, the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and the Klamath. The state also can provide technical assistance, set priorities and support strong, integrated regional water planning.
I have written SB 42, a $6.5 billion water bond that focuses on the most critical and broadly supported water needs: regional and local water supplies throughout the state; critical drinking water needs; delta ecosystem restoration and stronger levees to improve water delivery; groundwater and surface water storage that provide public benefits; and better flood protection.
SB 42 doesn’t fund everything. It doesn’t fund enormous tunnels or large projects that lack consensus. But it does fund a great number of water supply improvements for every community in the state, including new water systems, surface and groundwater storage projects, groundwater cleanup, recycling and conservation. Only the most fiscally competitive projects will be funded.
So what’s the hard part? The hard part is that once you write a financing plan, everybody wants more. They hire lobbyists. Earmarks start popping up. They want a reservoir here, a tunnel there, a water museum there.
Before you know it, it grows by billions — just as it did in 2009. And if they think they can’t get the votes they even threaten to kill the whole deal if they don’t get their way.
Just as we’ve seen in Congress, that same behavior can and does happen in the California Legislature. The final result is gridlock and nothing gets done.
It doesn’t have to end that way. In the months ahead, as this measure moves through the Legislature, my colleagues and I will be listening to you. We will want to know what is important to your community. We also need to live within our means.
Bonds are not free money. They must be paid back, both principal and interest.
Those payments come directly out of the general fund, the same dollars that fund our schools, health care and public safety.
Let’s be successful this time.
— State Sen. Lois Wolk, a Democrat, is a longtime Davis resident. This piece was published originally in the San Diego Union-Tribune.