Droughts and floods are both a part of life in California as 2017 has so clearly demonstrated: It took one of the wettest winters on record to pull the state from the depths of a five-year drought.
The state has invested funds in bulking up drought and flood protection in the past, but recent events highlighted the necessity of rejuvenating those efforts. As a result, Gov. Jerry Brown recently approved a new general obligation bond measure that would fund projects focused on those problems. The bond measure will go before California voters during the 2018 primary on June 5, and it must receive a 66.6 percent “yes” vote to pass.
Senate Bill 5, known as the California Drought, Water, Parks, Climate, Coastal Protection and Outdoor Access for All Act of 2018, would provide $4.1 billion for a wide variety of water and outdoor recreation needs.
Pablo Garza, the Environmental Defense Fund’s California political director, said the bill has three big goals it’s working toward at the same time: preventing floods, preventing droughts and adding parks to low-income city neighborhoods.
“There’s just tremendous needs. The flood piece alone, there’s a vast need to protect communities and upgrade our flood protection,” he said, adding that California is predicted to go through more cycles of heavy rain and intense drought. “We kind of go from extreme drought to extreme wet, and S.B. 5 does a good job of contemplating those two scenarios.”
The title of the bill focuses on drought and water issues, but the majority of its cash is earmarked for creating and maintaining parks in poorer urban communities. Out of the total $4 billion in new debt, plus allowing the state to use $100 million in leftover funds from a past bond, $2.83 billion will go toward creating parks in underserved areas, especially urban districts.
Projects that ensure clean drinking water and statewide drought preparation will get $250 million, flood protection projects will receive $550 million, regional drought sustainability projects plus water recycling projects will be allocated $390 million and groundwater sustainability projects will get $80 million, if voters pass the bill.
Flood protection solutions funded by the bill include reconnecting rivers to their historic floodplains, building levees and redirecting floodwater to groundwater basins, with some emphasis on protecting residents of the Central Valley from recurring floods.
On the drought protection side, some of the projects eligible for the bond’s funding include preventing groundwater contamination, increasing streamflow and building more treatment plants that can recycle wastewater into potable water for groundwater recharge.
But there are also a slew of other goals included in S.B. 5, like funding a new management plan for the shrinking Salton Sea, creating bike paths in rural areas and protecting Native American historic artifacts and sites. Included in the bill are hundreds of millions of dollars for purchasing land for wildlife protection, protecting and restoring beaches and cleaning up contaminated groundwater.
While the bond covers a lot of different initiatives, most of them circle back to the need to create a natural environment that can withstand impending impacts from climate change, Garza said. “The theme of climate resilience is woven throughout the bond,” he said.
The bond measure builds on a long history of state legislators issuing debt to pay for water issues and managing outdoor space. Prior bills from 2002, 2006 and 2014 pulled in $2.6 billion, $5.38 billion and $7.54 billion, respectively, for clean water, water supply and parks.
Caitrin Chappelle, associate director of the Public Policy Institute of California’s Water Policy Center, said the bill would provide more funding for some projects that have no other reliable income stream. “A lot of the bond money has over the years helped support different pieces and facets of water management and environmental management that don’t necessarily have a sustainable funding base otherwise.”
A general obligation bond is typically paid off over the course of 20–30 years. California currently has $73 billion left to pay off from other general obligation bonds, according to the California Treasurer’s Office.
“General obligation bonds have to get paid back, and they have to pay back with interest. It’s essentially taking out a new line of credit, using the general fund,” Chappelle said.
That debt still comes at taxpayer expense, Chappelle said, and the final decision comes down to California voters directly.
Water quality projects are primarily funded through the monthly bills ratepayers send to water agencies for tap water, but drought resilience and flood projects are so large and complex that additional funding is necessary, Garza said.
At the same time, he said, this bond won’t be the last time the state will need to fund projects that prevent floods and prepare for droughts.
“It puts $550 million toward flood protection, which is top of mind for all of California after the wet year we had,” Garza said. “It’s a drop in the bucket in regards to the overall need, but it will help.”