About Big Val­ley

The Fresno Bee (Sunday) - - Insight - Rs­a­balow@sacbee.com

Cal­i­for­nia vot­ers on Tues­day re­jected a wa­ter bond for the first time in al­most 30 years, dis­re­gard­ing pleas from its back­ers that the money would fix crum­bling in­fra­struc­ture, bring clean drink­ing wa­ter to dis­ad­van­taged com­mu­ni­ties and kick-start badly needed en­vi­ron­men­tal restora­tion projects.

As of Thurs­day’s tally, 54 per­cent of vot­ers had re­jected the $8.9 bil­lion Propo­si­tion 3 that promised funds to help re­pair Oroville Dam and aid Cen­tral Val­ley farm­ers fac­ing ground­wa­ter prob­lems, among a list of other ex­pen­di­tures.

The fail­ure is no­table: The last time vot­ers re­jected a wa­ter bond was 1990. Since then, nine wa­ter bond mea­sures have passed.

So why did this bond cam­paign go down in flames, when so many oth­ers in the drought­prone state have sailed through?

“I have no idea,” said Jerry Meral, the vet­eran wa­ter-pol­icy ad­vo­cate who drafted the ini­tia­tive. “If I did, we would have fixed it be­fore the elec­tion was hap­pen­ing. It re­ally is kind of a mystery be­cause it re­ally was much like pre­vi­ous wa­ter bonds: safe drink­ing wa­ter, wa­ter sup­ply and en­vi­ron­men­tal el­e­ments and so on. It’s hard to fig­ure out.”

Foes called Propo­si­tion 3 a grab bag of spe­cial in­ter­est projects for which farm­ers and wa­ter users should be pay­ing — not tax­pay­ers. With its nearly $9 bil­lion price tag, Propo­si­tion 3 was the largest bond mea­sure on the bal­lot in decades.

Un­like most other wa­ter bonds, Propo­si­tion 3 funds wouldn’t have been al­lo­cated through the state bud­get­ing process. In­stead, money would have been paid as grants directly to the farms and other groups that would have spent it. That trou­bled Propo­si­tion 3’s crit­ics who said it lacked ac­count­abil­ity.

“The mea­sure re­flected a clas­sic pay-to-play bond mea­sure scheme,” the Sierra Club of Cal­i­for­nia said Wed­nes­day in a state­ment. “To at­tract wealthy in­vestors ... the bond’s de­vel­op­ers in­cluded in the mea­sure bil­lions of dol­lars worth of projects that would al­low those in­vestors to use tax­payer funds for projects they would oth­er­wise have to pay for them­selves.”

Those ar­gu­ments might have been too com­plex for the av­er­age voter to grasp, said Uni­ver­sity of Cal­i­for­nia San Diego po­lit­i­cal sci­en­tist Thad Kousser.

In­stead, Kousser said he sus­pects the rea­son the bond failed was be­cause From Bak­ers­field to Sacra­mento, and from Can­tua Creek to Ar­buckle, the big cities and farm­ing towns of the Cen­tral Val­ley are chang­ing. McClatchy and The Fresno Bee are div­ing into the peo­ple and is­sues driv­ing those changes in the Big Val­ley. Look for it ev­ery Sun­day. vot­ers in 2014 and in June passed wa­ter-re­lated bonds.

Plus, vot­ers this elec­tion agreed to keep higher gas taxes, and they also passed bonds for chil­dren hos­pi­tals, home­less peo­ple and af­ford­able hous­ing.

“I think there was bond fa­tigue here,” Kousser said. “And let’s face it, a dam isn’t as sym­pa­thetic as a vet­eran, a sick child and a home­less per­son . .... When vot­ers are vot­ing to con­tinue to tax them­selves for gas use, vot­ing for three other bonds, and then they see the big price


tag of this, I think vot­ers just balked at that price tag.”

Asked Wed­nes­day why he thought the bond failed, Gov. Jerry Brown of­fered a sim­i­lar assess­ment.

“Hard to say,” Brown said. “It might be there was so many bonds.”

Brown, who cham­pi­oned the 2014 Propo­si­tion 1 wa­ter bond, de­clined to say how he voted on the ini­tia­tive.

Meral said it didn’t help that at least 15 ed­i­to­rial boards at the state’s news­pa­pers, in­clud­ing The Sacra­mento Bee, wrote ed­i­to­ri­als that con­demned the bond.

Money may have also been a fac­tor. Farm­ing groups and oth­ers had do­nated nearly $5 mil­lion to its cam­paign war chest, but in an email to bond sup­port­ers, Meral said the cam­paign lacked money to buy TV ads, and “mem­ory of the drought has faded, so wa­ter was not con­sid­ered a high pri­or­ity.”

The bond would have al­lo­cated $750 mil­lion to re­pair the Fri­ant-Kern Canal in the eastern San Joaquin Val­ley, which is sink­ing be­cause farm­ers in the area have pumped so much ground­wa­ter it’s caused the re­gion’s floor to col­lapse sev­eral feet. The fail­ing canal is los­ing its abil­ity to sup­ply wa­ter to more than 300,000 acres of crops. The bond also would have paid more than $200 mil­lion for re­pairs and other work as­so­ci­ated with the Oroville Dam cri­sis in 2017.

Propo­si­tion 3 also would have pro­vided more than $1 bil­lion to help farm­ers com­ply with pend­ing ground­wa­ter reg­u­la­tions. Around $3 bil­lion would have gone to wa­ter qual­ity im­prove­ments and fish and wildlife habi­tat projects across the state. An­other $500 mil­lion would have gone to flood pro­tec­tion. Propo­si­tion 3 would have pro­vided $500 mil­lion to clean up drink­ing wa­ter.

The loss of the drink­ing-wa­ter funds leaves a con­tin­u­ing short­age for poor com­mu­ni­ties with un­safe wa­ter sup­plies, es­pe­cially since the state leg­is­la­ture this sum­mer failed to ap­prove a tax that would have helped clean up con­tam­i­na­tion, said Meral, Propo­si­tion 3’s author.

“They haven’t solved safe drink­ing wa­ter,” Meral said.

A 2018 McClatchy in­ves­ti­ga­tion found that 360,000 Cal­i­for­ni­ans are served by wa­ter sys­tems that vi­o­late state stan­dards for ni­trates, ar­senic, ura­nium and other pol­lu­tants.

Ja­son Phillips, CEO of the Fri­ant Wa­ter Au­thor­ity said the bond’s fail­ure af­fects more than the farm­ers who get wa­ter from the Fri­ant-Kern Canal. Propo­si­tion 3’s de­feat also hurts sev­eral dis­ad­van­taged com­mu­ni­ties in the area, he said.

“Not hav­ing this fund­ing is go­ing to bring (on) the wa­ter cri­sis that is pend­ing a lot faster,” he said.

Phillips’ wa­ter dis­trict may end up ask­ing the fed­eral gov­ern­ment to fund the canal re­pairs be­cause state law­mak­ers are un­likely to pay, he said.

Jay Ziegler of the Na­ture Con­ser­vancy, which sup­ported the bond, said the loss of $3 bil­lion that the ini­tia­tive would have set aside for wa­ter qual­ity and habi­tat projects was a blow to Cal­i­for­nia’s ecosys­tem restora­tion goals.

“I think there’s a very real and im­me­di­ate im­pact that comes with this,” Ziegler said.

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