Groups Move to Oppose Rail-Water Proposition

A proposed November ballot measure that would shift high-speed rail funding to water storage projects has attracted opposition from several Northern California water interests. They've formed a campaign committee in the hope of defeating the proposition.

Written byMatt Weiser Published on Mar. 9, 2016 Read time Approx. 4 minutes
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A formal opposition group has emerged to fight a proposed ballot measure that would take money from California’s high-speed rail project and shift it to water storage projects.

Called Stop the Special Interest Water Grab, supporters of the new opposition committee include the California Rice Commission and the Northern California Water Association. They oppose the ballot measure because it includes several little-noticed provisions that would amend the state constitution to change several established provisions of water law.

“It will impact any senior water rights, really, in the state,” said Tim Johnson, president of the California Rice Commission. “It’s so poorly written, everyone I talk to agrees it’s just going to end up in court. Nobody really wants water rights decided in the fifth year of a drought in the courts.”

The ballot proposal would redirect existing high-speed rail funds toward water storage projects instead. It was introduced by State Sen. Robert Huff, R-Diamond Bar, and Board of Equalization member George Runner, R-Lancaster, and is sponsored by the California Water Alliance. (A companion measure, backed by the same sponsors, would suspend new bond sales to pay for high-speed rail.)

The support committee, calling itself CaliforniaWater4All, has until July 25 to gather 585,407 signatures to qualify the latter measure for the ballot.

Johnson objects to the measure for several reasons. First, he said, it not only redirects $8 billion in high-speed rail money, but orders this money to be pooled with another $2.7 billion already reserved for water storage projects from Proposition 1, a water bond approved by California voters in 2014.

It then creates a new state agency to decide how this pooled money should be spent, throwing out the law established in Prop. 1 that gives such authority to the California Water Commission. This comes after the commission spent the past two years developing rules to review water projects. Also, water groups have spent thousands of dollars and man-hours developing funding proposals to comply with those rules, on projects such as Sites Reservoir in Colusa County and Temperance Flat Reservoir in Fresno County.

“If this initiative passed, you’ve got a new body and all of that work will have been for nothing,” said Johnson, a supporter of the Sites project.

The measure also contains language that would amend the California constitution to proclaim that the state’s highest priority for water delivery is urban users, followed by agriculture, the environment and recreation – in that order.

While that order is more or less already established by state water law (although the environment gets first priority in some situations), Johnson said a constitutional amendment would undermine senior water rights, most of which are held by agricultural interests.

In addition, he objects to statements by proponents of the ballot measure that “all of agriculture” in California support the proposal.

“I tell you, the rice farmers in the north certainly don’t want to be categorized as somebody who thinks the environment should come last,” Johnson said. “To say that we hate the train and hate the environment, and for others to speak for all of agriculture, is just not appropriate.”

He notes that, in each of the past two drought years, agricultural water users in Sacramento Valley made significant voluntary adjustments in water deliveries to help both endangered salmon and migratory waterfowl.

Aubrey Bettencourt, executive director of the Hanford-based California Water Alliance, the measure’s chief sponsor, said she tried to involve Sacramento Valley water interests in drafting the proposition.

“We tried working with them as much as we could,” she said. “But we didn’t get much for feedback beyond ‘just don’t do it.’”

Several prominent farming and water interests in the San Joaquin Valley have also expressed concern about the measure, including the Tulare county supervisor Steve Worthley, who chairs a joint powers authority advocating for construction of Temperance Flat Reservoir, and Manual Cunha, president of the Fresno-based Nisei Farmers League. But none has agreed to join Johnson’s new opposition committee yet.

The board of the Kings River Water Association, a Fresno-based group whose members hold water rights in the river, plans to decide next week whether to take a position on the proposed ballot measure.

“One of the concerns I’ve heard expressed is: What happens with Proposition 1 funds that are reallocated as a result of the proposed proposition?” said Steve Haugen, the association’s watermaster. “There are certain sections of the existing Prop. 1 that some of our folks are very reliant on. If it impacts those areas, that’s going to be a great concern.”

Bettencourt said she is not concerned that opposition is emerging to the measure. For now, she said, supporters are staying focused on gathering signatures to qualify the measure for the November ballot.

“Everybody is entitled to their own opinion,” she said. “Getting into this, we knew there was going to be opposition, and that’s the way the game is played.”

Matt Weiser is a contributing editor at WaterDeeply.org. He can be reached via email at matt@newsdeeply.org, or via Twitter at @matt_weiser.

Top image: Dan Richard, chairman of the board that oversees the California High-Speed Rail Authority, gestures to a map showing the proposed initial construction of the bullet train in the revised business plan, Thursday, Feb. 18, 2016, in Sacramento, Calif. A proposed ballot measure that would divert high-speed rail funding to water projects is beginning to draw big opposition. (Rich Pedroncelli, Associated Press)