California to invest in water infrastructure

California has taken an important step towards addressing one of the worst droughts in its history. The largest U.S. state has approved a 7.5 billion dollar proposal to boost water supplies. But the plan still has to be approved by voters in November. John Dyer reports from Boston.


Democrats and Republicans in the state capital of Sacramento have spent more than a year fighting over water supplies. Now they’ve finally approved an investment of 7.545 billion dollars in the state’s water supplies. The chronic water shortages in the southern part of the largest U.S. state, which is affecting both drinking water and service water used in irrigation, will finally come to an end.

“With this water bond, legislators from both parties have affirmed their faith in California’s future,” said California Governor Jerry Brown, a Democrat. “It was an amazing convergence over a big idea, and the big idea is that the future of California needs a lot of water and we’ve got to use it in the best way possible.”

But the plan isn’t yet law: California voters will get to approve or reject the plan in a ballot measure in November.

Reservoirs half empty

Economists estimate that California’s current drought has cost the state around 2.2 million dollars . Ten of California’s 12 large reservoirs are half empty after three years of dry winters and hot summers, according to the National Drought Mitigation Center in Nebraska.

And California’s thirst for water continues to grow: An additional 12 million people are forecast to live in California in the next 35 years, boosting its total population to 50 million. The state’s massive Central Valley agricultural industry as well as the economic powerhouses of Silicon Valley and Hollywood also need water to grow. “Water is the lifeblood of the California economy,” said California Chamber of Commerce President Allan Zaremberg in a statement.

Yet, in a local illustration of the widespread problem of crumbling infrastructure in the United States, California hasn’t invested significantly in its water facilities in 30 years.

Both sides under pressure

Financed mostly with debt, the plan would spend 2.7 billion dollars on new reservoirs, a key measure demanded by Republicans who sought to overcome Democrats’ concerns about the environmental damage wrought by dams and other facilities.

“We finally have a water bond that has water in it,” said Senate Minority Leader Bob Huff, a Republican from suburban Los Angeles.

But the proposal also includes environmental measures long-demanded by Democrats: Funding for climate change preparations, nearly 1 billion dollars to clean up or prevent groundwater contamination in Southern California, 1 billion dollars to repair existing water systems, and funding to help municipalities develop water plans that would prevent draining aquifers.

Both sides were under pressure. If they didn’t agree on a plan, another proposal approved by a previous legislature in 2009 would have been put on the November ballot instead. That 11 billion dollar plan had come under withering criticism in recent years because it would have funnelled large amounts of money to lawmakers’ districts instead of improving water supplies.

Save the Sacramento Delta

Environmentalists remain nonetheless sceptical of the 7.545 billion dollar proposal. They fear that money from the new proposal will help fund a separate, controversial plan floated by Governor Brown to build tunnels under the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta ecosystem in Northern California to pump water to the drought-stricken Central Valley. The 23 billion dollar tunnel plan wouldn’t provide any water to the Delta, a region that environmentalists argue is already overused and drying up because it’s a conduit for water heading from California’s water-rich north to its parched south.

While Democrats have insisted that little to no funding from the November ballot proposal would fund the tunnel project, environmentalists fear otherwise. “We believe there is money in this bond that is vulnerable to being gamed by farmers and water agencies who don’t care about protecting the Delta,” said Sierra Club California Executive Director Kathryn Phillips. “We’re hopeful, but we’re worried.”


Photo credit: Ian Abbott, flickr/Creative Commons


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