Every once in a while, Californians have a chance to make everything better. This is the objective of the Water Infrastructure Funding Act, a bipartisan attempt to bring California’s water infrastructure into the 21st century. If this ballot initiative is approved by voters in November 2022, it will allocate two percent of the state general fund to water infrastructure projects until those projects yield five-million-acre feet per year of new water per year.
Imagine living in a state where water scarcity is a memory, jobs are plentiful, housing is affordable, and grocery aisles overflow with the most diverse assortment of fresh and affordable food in the world. Imagine living in a state where a clean and reliable supply of drinking water reaches into every neighborhood and school in every community. Imagine a state where even during prolonged droughts, water rationing is unnecessary, and rivers and wetlands are ecologically healthy.
Despite this initiative offering a pathway out of a grim future into one of abundance and prosperity, resistance has already formed. A recent column authored by Los Angeles Times columnist Michael Hiltzik, for example, is sharply critical of our water initiative. Here is our response to some of his concerns:
Spending on water infrastructure is necessarily expensive. To call it “grossly uneconomical” is to ignore the role of government spending, which, among other things, is to subsidize public works projects in order to protect ratepayers from unaffordable bills. Water, especially in a state where droughts are bad and getting worse, is a perfect example of “uneconomic spending” making perfect economic sense.
This is a bipartisan issue. Forcing the California State Legislature to prioritize investment in water infrastructure is not an ideological goal, it’s a pragmatic necessity. Water doesn’t flow Right or Left. With budget surpluses, spending two percent of the state general fund each year on water projects will not impose a new burden on taxpayers.
All consumers of water in California require new and expensive infrastructure upgrades, not just farmers. It will cost tens of billions to recycle and reuse urban wastewater in California’s coastal cities. This water is currently imported from inland rivers, used once, and released into the Pacific Ocean. These necessary upgrades can be completed much faster with investment by the state. The cost to remediate the capacious aquifers in the Los Angeles Basin will cost additional billions. Worthy projects like these require state funding.
The goal of five-million-acre feet of new water was thoughtfully chosen. For starters, if existing water allocations continue to drop due to ongoing drought, this extra capacity will be necessary merely to fulfill basic needs. Excess capacity is also necessary to ensure resilience against natural and civil disasters that might damage critical elements of California’s water infrastructure. The five-million-acre feet per year goal can be achieved as follows:
- Up to 1.0-million-acre feet of conservation projects to reduce consumption are eligible for funding under the initiative.
- Approximately 2.0-million-acre feet of water can be recovered via urban wastewater reuse and desalination.
- Runoff capture via new or expanded off stream reservoirs and aquifer storage can yield another 2.0-million-acre feet.
This third category, runoff capture, merits additional explanation: The proposed Sites Reservoir, if built to its original specifications, would not only yield a half-million-acre feet of water per year, but would offer pump-storage to absorb surplus renewable electricity to be discharged every day during peak demand on California’s power grid. But can another 2.0-million-acre feet per year really be harvested via runoff capture? The answer is yes.
An authoritative study issued in 2017 by the Public Policy Research Institute describes so-called “uncaptured water,” which is the surplus runoff, often causing flooding, that occurs every time an atmospheric river hits the state. According to the study, “benefits provided by uncaptured water are above and beyond those required by environmental regulations for system and ecosystem water.” (Italics added). The study goes on to claim that uncaptured water flows through California’s Sacramento/San Joaquin Delta “averaged 11.3-million-acre feet [per year] over the 1980–2016 period.”
Surely it is possible to harvest 20 percent of this uncaptured water to store each year in off-stream reservoirs and underground aquifers.
Hiltzik claims California’s farm sector has the potential to reduce its overall consumption of water by an additional 22 percent through “more efficient usage.” But to back that up, he cites a study concluded nearly eight years ago, before farmers completed massive investments in water efficiency to cope with the ongoing drought that didn’t end until 2017. California’s farmers now use some of the most water efficient techniques anywhere in the world.
In his column, Hiltzik also expresses concern about the initiative’s modifications to CEQA and the Coastal Act. But these changes don’t eliminate environmental review, they merely reduce the time required for project approval to a year or two instead of decades. Virtually every water expert among the hundreds we spoke with, agreed that without some environmental regulatory relief, it would be extremely difficult to build new water infrastructure by the time Californians are going to need it.
Journalists – and the voters they influence – are invited to study the full text of the Water Infrastructure Funding Act and consider its inclusion of eligible projects that don’t directly increase California’s supply of water but are absolutely essential to the well-being of Californians. Replacing the toxic lead pipes in the LAUSD public schools. Repairing and extending water mains to underserved communities. Restoring riparian habitats – with the accompanying benefit of recharging aquifers – in urban environments. Where are California’s cities and counties going to get this money, if the state doesn’t make it a spending priority?
Back in 2012, Governor Brown signed Assembly Bill (AB) 685, making California the first state in the nation to legislatively recognize the human right to water. The Water Infrastructure Funding Act will put meaning to that legislation, benefiting people and the environment.
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