It’s not surprising, but a group of Democratic politicians and environmental organizations has come out against the California water bond scheduled for the ballot this November. The group has formed an organization simply titled “No on the Water Bond” and started a website and public relations campaign. It is interesting to see the differences of opinion that water causes even within political groups, and how they shift over time, since the bond package was approved by both houses of the Democrat-controlled Legislature last November. Last week, No on the Water Bond issued an open letter to the California Democratic Party Convention listing some of their reasons for opposing the bond measure.
Policy objections raised by No on the Water Bond included the magnitude of the bond, burden on taxpayers during a period of budget cuts to other government programs, failure to require water users to pay, subsidies to agriculture, favoring of new dams with environmental impacts, stepping towards a Delta canal, and privatization of water supplies.
While we may have some reason to doubt the sincerity of their positions given past actions, several of these objections make sense from a policy perspective. For example, not undertaking large new government programs during a period of lowered tax revenues, without a dedicated funding source, is self-evidently prudent. As an economic liberal (more on that in other posts), I would agree that requiring the beneficiaries of water projects to pay makes economic, as well as environmental and political sense. That is the concept of “full-cost pricing” of water and wastewater services, which was previously incorporated into the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Four Pillars of Sustainable Infrastructure. Full-cost pricing is one area where both market-oriented environmental advocates and the private sector can generally agree, but it divides economically liberal and progressive Democrats. (Increasingly, progressives often argue that water services are a public good that should be provided to everyone free of charge.)
Regarding new dams and the Delta canal, it seems that the environmentalists are making their case at the wrong time. Any project to be built in the state would need to comply with the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), including a comprehensive study of environmental harms and benefits. A firm decision about the pros and cons of any particular project could be made intelligently on the basis of such a study, but not at the ballot box in November. It seems premature to reject all projects statewide on the presumption that they will cause “devastation of the environment”, especially in light of the current Delta crisis being caused by doing nothing. Additionally, contrary to the letter’s suggestions regarding the Delta canal, the water bond legislation expressly denies funding for such a canal through this financing method, and the encouragement of a canal by the water bond is relatively small. In fact, the size of the current bond may make future financing of a Delta canal less likely.