Gov. Jerry Brown and state lawmakers are expected to use the backdrop of California's most severe drought in nearly four decades to sell voters on the $7.5 billion water plan they put on the ballot this week.
Despite its size, the measure will not solve the problems created by the drought nor is it expected to prevent rationing during future ones. Instead, the projects it will fund are designed to provide a greater cushion when the state finds itself dealing with prolonged water shortages in the decades ahead.
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"(The bond) doesn't mean we can continue to run the tap," said Sen. Kevin de Leon, a Los Angeles Democrat who will become Senate leader in fall. "This is a stopgap measure ... It's not a comprehensive panacea of dealing with the drought."
Many of the projects that will be funded through the measure, if voters approve it, are years away from providing any benefits, including a boost to desalination technology and cleaning up contaminated groundwater. With planning, environmental reports and construction, it could be a decade before the two reservoirs that are expected to be built under the plan could actually store any water.
"As you experience this (drought) more and more going forward, we got to have the infrastructure in place," Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins, D-San Diego, said the day the Legislature approved the water package. "But a drought buster? I'm hoping for more rain and better snowpack, and that then our infrastructure is prepared to hold those things."
The bond measure appearing on the November ballot as Proposition 1 asks voters to approve $7.1 billion in new borrowing and to redirect $425 million from past ballot propositions. It replaces an $11.1 billion bond that was negotiated in 2009 but was considered too expensive and too burdened with local, special interest projects to pass.
Many provisions in the new water measure are designed to increase the availability of water, including: $2.7 billion for water storage projects that include a reservoir north of Sacramento in Colusa County and another in the Sierra northeast of Fresno; $725 million for water recycling and treatment projects; and $900 million for cleaning up contaminated groundwater.
Some of these investments are the greatest in decades, but it will take years and additional matching money from local sources to make the projects become reality.
"It's not going to mitigate the droughts as much as it's going to help us prepare," said Senate Minority Leader Bob Huff, R-Diamond Bar.
Not everything in the water bond directly relates to future water supply. The second largest funding category sets aside $1.5 billion for ecosystem and watershed projects, while another $395 million is available for flood management.
Earlier this year, lawmakers passed a $687 million relief package to contend with some of the immediate effects of the drought, which has forced farmers to uproot orchards and leave fields unplanted, caused double-digit unemployment in counties heavily dependent on agriculture and led to a browning of the suburban landscape.
Proposition 1 would not necessarily prevent these scenes from playing out again.
"This isn't the be-all and end-all of California water investment," said Mark Cowin, director of the state Department of Water Resources.
He said a coming update to the governor's water action plan will say the total need for investing in California's water infrastructure would approach $100 billion over the next decade. The plan says climate change and a growing population will mean California must fundamentally rethink how it manages water.
That includes a contentious proposal, supported by the governor, to build 35-mile-long, freeway-size water tunnels beneath the Northern California delta to divert Sacramento River water to Central Valley farms and Southern California. To avoid sparking a regional war at the ballot box, Proposition 1 prohibits the bond money from contributing to the tunnels' $25 billion price-tag.
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