Executive Summary for November 13th

For an overview of the latest news on the California drought, we’ve organized the most recent developments in a curated summary, including the most important stories, analysis and data. Our goal is to keep you informed of the day’s most significant events in the field.

Published on Nov. 13, 2015 Read time Approx. 3 minutes

Trade High-Speed Rail for Water Storage?

Two California Republican leaders have submitted language for a proposed ballot measure that would divert $8 billion from the state’s high-speed rail project to water storage developments.

Rep. Bob Huff (R-San Dimas) and Board of Equalization member George Runner said they filed language for the initiative with the state Attorney General’s Office on Thursday. The proposal wears this unwieldy title: “The Water Priorities Constitutional Amendment and New Surface Water and Groundwater Storage Facilities Bond Act.”

Huff, citing cost escalations and evidence of public ambivalence towards high-speed rail, said the money could be better spent on water projects.

“I believe the voters would agree, let’s take this money and put it somewhere where we actually know there’s an infrastructure need, and that’s water,” Huff told Capital Public Radio.

The ballot proposal would also authorize shifting $2.7 billion in unspent water bond money to water storage construction.

Further, it would amend the state constitution to give drinking water and irrigation priority from California’s limited water supply. This is not likely to go over well with environmentally minded Californians because, by default, it means placing environmental uses of water — such as ensuring sufficient water flows for endangered salmon — in a legally subordinate position.

The exact language of the proposed ballot measure goes even further by unraveling language in Proposition 1, the water bond measure approved by voters in 2014. That law designates some $2.7 billion in bond money to subsidize the “public benefits” of new water storage projects, such as the portion of stored water designated to benefit habitat. The Runner/Huff measure calls this an “unacceptable limitation” and states: “No bonds shall be sold for the public benefits associated with water storage projects.”

It also declares that the California Water Commission is “insufficiently representative of the population” to decide how these Proposition 1 water bond funds should be spent.

Instead, the initiative would create an entirely new bureaucratic entity, within the Department of Water Resources, to decide how money should be spent on water storage projects. It would be called the “State Water Storage and Groundwater Storage Facilities Authority.”

Whether the initiative actually makes it to the ballot depends on how much money supporters can generate to collect signatures.

Runner told the Associated Press the campaign would have sufficient money to fund a robust signature-gathering campaign.

Santa Cruz: Wastewater Recycling Over Desalination

Because the city of Santa Cruz is a relatively wealthy and liberal enclave in a privileged location along the ocean shore, some might decide its decisions do not have any bearing on other Californians. But it is precisely because of these factors that the city’s choices bear watching.

That’s because Santa Cruz has a world of options available to resolve its water supply problems. It is not necessarily limited by geography or finances, the two factors that constrain many water decisions.

Santa Cruz has made tremendous strides in water conservation during the drought. The city exceeded its state water conservation target by 21 percent in September, and has reduced per capita water use by its 95,000 citizens to an astonishingly low 41 gallons per day.

Yet Santa Cruz still faces long-term water supply challenges, because it does not benefit from any water imported from elsewhere. Instead, it relies almost entirely on flows in the San Lorenzo River and storage of that water in a single reservoir.

So after 18 months of study, a special Santa Cruz water commission this week reported its proposed solutions for future water supply. And it did not choose seawater desalination, despite ready access to the Pacific Ocean at its doorstep.

Instead, the commission is proposing even stricter water conservation measures. It also proposes to use surplus San Lorenzo River flows, when available, to recharge the city’s limited network of groundwater wells. In addition, wastewater recycling is proposed as a backup plan to secure additional water supplies, if necessary.

Desalination was not ruled out entirely, but placed as a backup to the backup plan, in case wastewater recycling is not achievable for some reason.

Certainly, politics played a role in this choice, since Santa Cruz residents have expressed clear concerns about desalination in the past.

But it’s also a pragmatic choice, since wastewater recycling is generally more affordable than desalination, it’s less energy-intensive, and it faces an easier regulatory path — all things that are important to any community.

The entirety of the city’s final water supply investigation can be found here.

Top image: A full-scale mock-up of a high-speed train is displayed in February at the Capitol in Sacramento. Two well-known Republican state lawmakers, George Runner and Sen. Bob Huff, submitted language Thursday for a ballot initiative that would ask California voters to redirect about $8 billion in bond money from the state’s high-speed rail project to build water storage. (Rich Pedroncelli, Associated Press)

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