A proposal on the November ballot to borrow billions of dollars to build reservoirs and restore watersheds has divided California's environmental community over fears that it could open the way for salmon-killing dams or giveaways to corporate fruit and nut growers.
The rise of organized opposition to what's known as Proposition 1 comes about a month before the election, with independent polls showing voters favoring the blueprint that is one of Gov. Jerry Brown's signature initiatives.
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It's "a bad deal for California taxpayers and won't solve California's water problems," said Adam Scow, state director of Food & Water Watch, which staged a protest against the proposition Thursday in Beverly Hills.
"When you have 1,400 dams in California, pouring concrete to make ... new dams ain't going to make it rain," he said.
If enacted by voters Nov. 4, the proposal would authorize $7.5 billion in borrowing for an array of projects as California struggles through a punishing drought and record heat.
Everyone agrees California needs to do something about its creaky water storage and distribution systems and a muddle of rules, some dating back more than a century, that determine who gets it and how much.
But environmentalists are deeply split over whether the ballot proposal is the answer, or even a worthwhile step.
The state should invest "in water conservation, efficiency and recycling strategies, not just throw money around to build dams for powerful, big agribusinesses," the Center for Biological Diversity said in a statement.
The plan "will push the Sacramento-San Joaquin Bay Delta closer to collapse, leaving little chance for the imperiled Chinook salmon, smelt and steelhead," the center said.
Supporters argue that the plan is vital at a time of scare rain, when water reserves are drying up. Some of the state's leading environmental voices, including the California League of Conservation Voters and the Natural Resources Defense Council, have endorsed it.
They emphasize there is no provision steering money directly to dam construction. But it's also not ruled out — $2.7 billion of the bond funds would be set aside for storage projects, which could include reservoirs or underground storage, known as water banking, that would be selected through a competitive process.
"We generally agree big new dams are not the future of California water policy," said NRDC staff attorney Doug Obegi. "In our view, a vote for the bond is not a vote for big new dams."
At the Beverly Hills protest, Food & Water Watch and the Southern California Watershed Alliance warned that water transfers would benefit corporate farming interests. Bay Area fisherman planned a protest Friday, saying the proposal would damage salmon and crab populations.
State records show a committee opposing the bond has raised less than $50,000 for the campaign, raising doubts about opponents' ability to reach voters in a state where a week of TV ads can cost several million dollars. Meanwhile, Brown has said he intends to campaign to build support for it.
The state arm of the Sierra Club has remained conspicuously neutral, though a statement on its website says bluntly, "We hate the dam funding in the bond."
The group says the proposal has worthy provisions, including $1.3 billion for watershed restoration, but in an era of climate change and unstable precipitation "this bond will never be acceptable when almost one-third of the money is set for more wasteful and destructive dam building."
Repaying the water bond could cost more than $14 billion over 40 years, according to the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst's Office.