Will There Be a Water Bond on the 2018 California Ballot?

As part of our ongoing coverage of the evolution of water infrastructure, governance, and financing, TPR unpacks the four potential bond measures California voters may face in 2018 to fund new water projects statewide. Brian Jordan, vice president of civil engineering firm Tetra Tech, offers a private-sector perspective on the need facing infrastructure industries. Advocating the ability of a new bond to fill those gaps is Jerry Meral, who built a deep expertise as longtime executive director of the Planning and Conservation League and at the California Department of Water Resources, the California Natural Resources Agency, and the Environmental Defense Fund.


Brian, what are the needs driving California interests to seek a water bond on the 2018 ballot?

Brian Jordan: It’s been a couple years since voters approved Proposition 1 in 2014. Prop 1 was prompted by the significant drought conditions in the state. Fortunately, those conditions in the state have passed. Now, we have an opportunity to better understand what can be funded and implemented with Prop 1 monies, and assess where we need additional investments. We know that we need to improve the state’s water resources conditions moving forward. The questions that remain are how to implement and fund those improvements.

We also have a greater understanding of the interrelated nature of the management of water resources. We have advanced the conversations between different stakeholders and industries and there continues to be growing appreciation between the needs of water for natural resources, agriculture, or urban and municipal use. In 2018, we have an opportunity to build on this progress with a bond measure.

Jerry, you are one of the many proposing a water bond measure, along with Joe Caves of the Conservation Strategy Group; State Senate President pro Tem Kevin de León, and Assemblymember Eduardo Garcia, among others. Give our readers a snapshot of the politics and actors involved in this effort.

Jerry Meral: It’s pretty complicated, but there are four measures that are viable. In the Legislature, the general feeling I am getting is that the Assembly is deferring to the Senate on the water and parks bond measure. Seeing Speaker Rendon’s comments on the housing bond, it appears his focus is on affordable housing.

Governor Brown’s stated position is that he would tolerate approximately $2 billion for each category that the state is grappling with: housing, water, and parks. The governor is firm on remaining fiscally prudent while the state deals with its “Wall of Debt.”

The lead bill in the legislature appears to be Senate Bill 5, which is Senator de León’s Water and Parks bond. Some elements of AB 18, authored by Assemblymember Garcia, have also been incorporated into SB 5.

Then there is Joe Caves’ initiative, which I worked on. It is similar to SB 5, except that it is at the $8 billion level rather than the governor’s preferred $6 billion, and it takes on climate change as well as parks and water.

The proponents of this measure—the Resources Legacy Fund, Nature Conservancy, and Conservation Strategy Group—have essentially been trying to show the Legislature and governor that they could go it alone with a ballot measure. Frankly, that has been successful in drumming up interest in the Capitol. There is a high probability that the Legislature will package a bond in the next couple weeks.

Finally, there is the bond measure that we have filed with the Attorney General. It is a more traditional water bond; we are being cautious about the single-subject rule. There are no park elements. Everything is linked to water, whether watershed protection, wastewater recycling, water conservation, desalination of brackish water, and water conveyance.

Do you intend to go forward with your water bond measure no matter what the Legislature chooses to place on the ballot? 

Jerry Meral: No, not at all. We have met with the governor and Senator de León, as well as with Kip Lipper, the senator’s lead staffer. Our position is that if a reasonably substantial part of our proposed measure were included in whatever package gets approved for the ballot, we would end our initiative efforts. We believe that the Legislature should rightly do these things.

Even though our measure is about $8.8 billion, we could probably drop it to about $3 billion if it were included in the comprehensive package. So far, that has not happened. We are proceeding as if it will not, but we will see as soon as the Legislature returns.

Brian Jordan: The scale of Jerry’s proposal—more than $8 billion for water resources and infrastructure—highlights the magnitude of the challenge in front of us. From an economic, cultural, and social standpoint, it is so important for the Legislature and the voters of California to understand the value of water going forward.

Jerry, how did you assemble and prioritize the menu of projects that would be funded by a 2018 bond?

Jerry Meral: We used two guiding principles. First, we conformed to the governor’s Water Action Plan as much as possible. Having played a small role in crafting the plan, I was impressed by how well it prioritized the needed investments for the state; I give former Department of Water Resources Director Mark Cowin and Natural Resources Undersecretary Janelle Beland most of the credit for championing that plan. We plan to publish a white paper explaining how each of the elements in our plan matches up to the Governor’s Action Plan.

Second, we looked to Prop 1. Prop 1 passed by an overwhelming margin; 67 percent for a bond measure does not happen very often. Prop 1 is a drafting template for assessing what still needs to be funded and when. We merged these two guiding principles in our proposal.

Brian, what water projects do you believe should be included in a 2018 water bond?

Brian Jordan: The projects must emphasize the regional and interconnected nature of water management. I think all the proposals have been successful in pushing this regional approach.

We also need to consider the impacts of climate change, which has already begun to play a role in our infrastructure planning. We have a growing appreciation for ensuring reliable and resilient water supplies.

As TPR recently described, Los Angeles County, under Supervisor Sheila Kuehl and Chief Sustainability Officer Gary Gero, is looking at new funding measures for water resiliency that would allow the county to implement projects in the context of regional needs. If you scale that approach up to the state level, you see the need for an integrated water management strategy.

The environmental benefits are also economic benefits, and that is why I think voters will continue to support investment at the statewide level.

The general rule of Capitol politics is that an interest group must demonstrate its ability to independently fund its own measure. Jerry, elaborate on your efforts to do this as you attempt to influence the Legislature to embrace your water investment priorities.

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Chris Alexakiswater, L.A.