Get rid of the water bond, now

Pub date July 13, 2010

OPINION A Field Poll released last week showed decent support among progressives for Proposition 18, the $11 billion water bond on the November ballot. We shouldn’t let the bond’s cheery name fool us. Prop. 18 is a con job.

Sold as the Safe, Clean, and Reliable Drinking Water Act, Prop. 18 has been getting a lot of press recently for the “pork” that was added to it to gain votes when it went before the Legislature last November. But for progressives, the real concern isn’t the pork; it’s the other meat in the bond. Prop. 18 would maintain a status quo that’s bad for our budget and water supply.

With polls showing lagging support for the bond, Gov. Schwarzenegger asked the Legislature to delay the measure until 2012. Bay Area residents have nothing to gain from the measure — this year or in two years. We need our legislators to fight for the bond’s termination, now.

Prop. 18 provides a $2 billion downpayment for a peripheral canal to send more water from the Sacramento Delta to deep-pocketed interests to the south. In 1982, Northern Californians overwhelmingly rejected the peripheral canal; we should do the same with the bond. The Westlands Water District, Beverly Hills billionaire-owned Paramount Farms and other megafarms stand to gain immensely from any additional water these projects might bring. The Bay Area does not.

Worse, some of these landholders skip farming altogether in order to resell the water we’ve subsidized at a huge profit to real estate developers. They pay about $25 to $50 per acre-foot of water, but can easily resell the water for over $200 per acre-foot. Corporate giant Cargill is looking to buy water from landowners in Kern County to supply its proposed 12,000-unit housing development on bay salt marshes in Redwood City.

The meat of Prop. 18 is $3 billion for the construction of more dams, an expensive and inefficient way to manage water. California’s rivers already have hundreds of dams. The water that evaporates from them each year is enough to supply 4 million people.

With interest, Prop. 18 would add $24 billion in debt to the state’s General Fund — roughly $16 million a week for 30 years. Already facing a $19 billion deficit, California has made drastic cuts to vital public services like education, housing, and healthcare — and this bond will make things worse.

Although there is some money in the bond for projects that could actually benefit us, it’s too little, too late. And the state still has $7 billion available from past water bonds that has not been spent. When the Legislature passed a bill in 2009 to invest that money in regional water projects, the governor vetoed the bill. The same will likely be true here. And even if we do see that money someday, will the trade-offs be worth it?

There is no question that California needs to invest billions in rebuilding and upgrading our vital water infrastructure. Here in the Bay Area, we are already spending billions on rebuilding our sewer and drinking water systems. Unfortunately, the bond provides only a trickle of money for such important investments or to boost conservation and efficiency in the urban and agricultural sectors. It’s no wonder that the Sierra Club, Food & Water Watch, San Francisco Baykeeper, Clean Water Action, the California Teachers Association, and United Farm Workers all oppose the bond.

Fortunately, state Sens. Mark Leno, Leland Yee, and Ellen Corbett and Assembly Members Tom Ammiano, Loni Hancock, and Nancy Skinner all voted against placing this bond on the ballot. We now need them to step up and urge their colleagues not just to delay but to repeal this bond, now. *

Elanor Starmer is the western region director for the consumer advocacy nonprofit Food and Water Watch (