Water Bond Heads to November Ballot as Proposition 1

Governor Jerry Brown signs a $7.5 billion water bond Wednesday night. (Ben Adler / Capital Public Radio)
Gov. Jerry Brown signs a $7.5 billion water bond Wednesday night. (Ben Adler / Capital Public Radio)

A plan to spend $7.5 billion on water projects across California is on its way to the November ballot.

The water bond measure -- officially the "Water Quality, Supply, and Infrastructure Improvement Act of 2014" -- passed both houses with near-unanimous support Wednesday night.

The signing ceremony Gov. Jerry Brown held immediately after the vote was the kind of sight that has become an endangered species in politics these days: a bipartisan celebration of a major legislative package.

“We’ve got a real water bond,” Brown said. “And we’ve got Democrats and Republicans that are more unified than I’ve ever seen – probably in my life.”

Fight Over Storage Spending

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But that bipartisan spirit had been late to arrive to the bond negotiations. The measure needed two-thirds support in each house to pass, which means Republicans had a rare moment of leverage. And they drove a hard bargain, demanding that $3 billion go to new reservoirs and other water storage projects.

Brown had kept the bond debate at arm’s length for most of the year. His public comments on the issue were vague at best. The governor did make one thing clear, though: He thought an $11 billion water bond approved by the Legislature and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2009 and scheduled for this fall's ballot was simply too large. The governor rolled out his alternative last week: a $6 billion plan that would spend $2 billion on storage projects.

Republicans said that was too low. They got Brown and Democratic leaders to increase that total to $2.5 billion by Wednesday morning. But the GOP held firm, and ultimately got Democrats to agree to $2.7 billion on storage spending. State Sen. Andy Vidak, R-Hanford, said that should be enough to build two new reservoirs.

“The storage is still 90 percent of what we had before,” he said after the vote. “And that’s very important. And hopefully it’s just enough to get both projects done.”

'There’s No Better Time'

The bond would spend about $90 million on habitat restoration projects in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. That’s much less than provided in other versions of the bond. Opponents of Brown’s plan to build two water tunnels in the Delta had worried a big investment there  could pave the way for the tunnels’ eventual approval.

Leaders are confident voters will approve the bond, which will appear on the ballot as Proposition 1. For one thing, it’s billions of dollars smaller than the 2009 version that has now been removed from the ballot. And as Senate President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg pointed out, California’s historic drought has everyone paying attention.

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“There’s no better time,” he said. “And there’s certainly no time to say, ‘Let’s do this another time.’ The time is now.”

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