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What Proposition 1 has in store for California's water

Under CC license from Flickr user Scott2342
Lake Shasta, California's largest reservoir, has dipped to just a quarter of its capacity during the current drought.

When you go to vote next Tuesday, the first thing you’ll see in the list of state measures is Proposition 1. It’s also being called “the water bond”. And let’s get one thing straight right now – this bond won’t resolve the current drought. We can’t vote to make it rain.

But, Proposition 1 can make it rain in the form of $7.5 billion worth of funding for water projects around the state. These could include projects that recycle, conserve, and store more of the water we already have.

Bond supporters say taking these actions now will put us in better shape for future droughts. Opponents say the bond is too expensive. Proposition 1 will take 40 years to pay off and will end up costing us about 14 billion dollars, or double the original bond. And, opponents say, too much of that money – $2.7 billion or about a third of the total bond – will go to fund water storage projects. Which, they say, really means more dams that threaten rivers and the industries that depend on them.

“If there’s one thing you need to know about California, there’s not enough water,” Fishermen Larry Collins says at a press conference at San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf.

Collins is here with a few other commercial fishermen to speak out again Proposition 1, a bond on the November 4 ballot. Several boats with “No on 1” banners tied to their masts float in the water behind them.

Collins and his colleagues believe that if Proposition 1 passes, it will mean more dams. More dams mean more obstacles to spawning salmon. So for Collins, more dams equals fewer fish. That’s bad for business.

“This is what I’m talking about,” Collins says, as he slides the lid off a big cooler, reaches in, and pulls out a gleaming silver salmon hooked on his thumb.

“You can’t have this and take more water out of the system. Vote no on Prop. 1!” says Collins.

Proposition 1 sets aside $2.7 billion for water storage projects. Right now, the most common way we store water is by building dams on rivers to make reservoirs. Those dams can harm wildlife, which is why some environmental groups also say to vote No on Proposition 1.

California hasn’t built a new dam in over 40 years, in part because of laws aimed at protecting wildlife. But, there has been a lot of talk about building more, especially among farmers who say they need more water for crops.

Fisherman Larry Collins sees a flaw in this plan: “There’s not enough water as it is to fill the reservoirs we have,” he says.

He’s right. That’s because of the drought. Right now our biggest reservoir, Lake Shasta, is only a quarter full. And others are in similar shape. So, Collins says, “The days of building new storage facilities or dams or that kind of thing are over.”

Jay Zeigler, from the Nature Conservancy, agrees.

“That’s the old way of doing business in California,” Ziegler says.

But Ziegler supports the bond, unlike the fisherman and other environmentalists.

“The cautionary note I would have is that whether your concerns are the adequacy of flows for fish, whether your concerns are there isn't enough here for the customers or there isn't enough here for agriculture – where do we start?” Ziegler asks. “If we don’t have this bond, not one of those issues, not one of California’s water challenges will get any better. If you don’t fund this, nothing gets better.”

Zeigler thinks instead of building dams, California’s future water supply is underground, in what he refers to as “smaller storage projects aimed at holding water to recharge groundwater basins.”

Groundwater basins are basically underground lakes. They’re naturally occurring – and there are hundreds of them all over the state. We’ve actually been tapping into them twice as much as usual during this drought. And just like you can take water out of the ground, you can also put it back in.

Groundwater basins can hold a lot of water – about 20 times more than our current major reservoirs. And they can do it at a fraction of the cost, because you don’t really have to build anything new. That’s why Ziegler thinks they make more sense than dams. And if the bond passes, he thinks the people who decide where the money goes – the California Water Commission – will agree.

Groundwater storage projects, Ziegler says, are “so overwhelmingly cost effective that ... it's a no-brainer.”

Bring all this up with No on 1 field director Barbara Barrigan-Parilla, and you’ll get a different no-brainer. She says the Water Commission is stacked with members looking out for the interests of industrial farmers who want more water, and think they’ll get it from new dams.

“They drive the discussion for agencies and they have deep pockets to lobby,” Barrigan-Parilla says. “So they have the influence to control the water debate. And they influence the California Water Commission.”

In other words, Barbara Barrigan-Parilla and the No on 1 camp think this bond is rigged. They think a yes vote on Prop 1 definitely means more dams – dams they believe will harm the fishing industry and won’t really bring more water to thirsty Californians.

Fisherman Larry Collins agrees.

“There’s not enough water,” he says. “And by passing this bond, there’s not going to be more water.”

But that’s exactly why Jay Ziegler thinks you should vote yes.

“We need to think out 10 years from now, 20 years from now. What does California's water supply look like? How are we using that water supply to meet the needs for people and for the environment?” Ziegler says. “And if you look at it that way. I think it's very hard to vote against Proposition 1.”

How we manage water is a complicated debate that’s been going on for many years – between industries, legislators, and environmentalists. On Tuesday November 4, it’s your turn to weigh in.

For the Pacific Institute's independent analysis of the Proposition 1, click here.