California Water Bond One Week from Ballot Test


California’s Proposition 1 (Prop 1) goes to vote on November 4th, and holds serious implications for the state’s response to its historically severe drought. Prop 1 would allow California to sell $7.1 billion in general obligation bonds plus an additional $425 million of previously unsold bonds to fund projects concerning water supply, water quality, flood control and watershed protection and restoration. Its supporters consider the water bond a vital piece of California’s long-term water security, while opponents of the bond generally point to its massive bill and potentially limited impact. The California Legislative Analyst’s Office estimates that repaying the bond will cost $360 million per year over the next 40 years. However, it will likely save local governments amounts “averaging a couple hundred million dollars annually.”

The bond would allocate funding to the following projects (per the Legislative Analyst’s Office):

Water Supply
$2.7 billion for surface and groundwater storage
$810 million for water conservation and capture
$725 million for water recycling and desalination

Environmental Protection
$1.495 billion, including watershed and habitat restoration, environmental clean-up, river flow increases

Water Quality
$1.4 billion, including groundwater cleanup and management, and drinking water for disadvantaged communities

Flood Protection
$395 million, including Delta levee improvements and statewide projects

The majority of California’s water comes from surface water resources – rivers and lakes fed by snowfall in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Unfortunately, surface water resources are not sufficiently available throughout the state, necessitating massive infrastructure projects such as the State Water Project to transfer water to Southern California. In cases where surface water cannot meet demand, groundwater is typically used to make up the difference. Treated wastewater and desalination are less common alternatives that the State is trying to explore further. As California struggles with the risks of its current and potential future droughts, as well as steadily increasing demand, it is clear that rapid action is needed to ensure California’s water supplies. Without reliable supplies, California stands to lose economic growth opportunities, social trust, and the environmental health of freshwater ecosystems. Prop 1 would serve as one piece of the State’s response, should voters deem the water bond’s cost worthy of its potential benefits.

Given the nature of these pressing water issues, it comes as no surprise that over half of the Prop 1’s funding is slated for water supply projects – namely, dams and underground storage. In a nod to environmental values, $1.5 billion will go towards watershed protection and restoration. The last major chunk of budget will be spent on water quality projects, especially those that prevent and treat groundwater pollution. The water bond is certainly an ambitious and expensive project, and should be viewed as a long-term solution to California’s water crisis rather than a quick fix to the State’s current drought situation.


The strongly bipartisan nature of the legislation behind Prop 1 was one of the biggest stories from Sacramento this summer. This broad consensus is reflected in the coalition of outside groups that have mobilized in support of the ballot measure (see a list of supporters here). The state Republican and Democratic parties have endorsed the bond, and major organizations representing environmental, water, agricultural, and business interests have rallied behind it. However, not everyone supports it for the same reasons.

Many groups point to the variety of programs the bond will fund as a strength. Proponents such as Yes on Props 1 and 2, “a bipartisan coalition of business, labor, Republicans, Democrats and Governor Brown,” say the bond promotes a “comprehensive” approach to water management by addressing storage, conservation, efficiency, and quality. Major organizations like the California Chamber of Commerce and Association of California Water Agencies frame their support in similarly broad terms.

Other groups have taken a more targeted approach. For instance, The California Farm Bureau Federation focuses on the $2.7 billion designated for water storage, reflecting its interest in securing water for agricultural irrigation. The environmental groups that have come out in support of the bond have walked a finer line. The Santa Cruz Sentinel notes that the environmental community has split on the issue, and the water supply provision is a major reason why. Organizations like the Nature Conservancy and the California League of Conservation Voters celebrate provisions for ecosystem protection and restoration and clean drinking water access. However, they tread carefully when discussing new water storage to avoid the specter of new dams. CLCV simply does not mention the issue, while the Nature Conservancy mentions the importance of “regional supply” and groundwater storage. The NRDC’s position is somewhat defensive, pointing out that the bond does not earmark money specifically for dams or the Bay Delta Conservation Plan. This approach is not limited to environmentalists: the LA Times spends nearly one third of its endorsement pushing back against the idea that the bond will necessarily lead to new dams.

Despite the sizeable “Yes on 1” coalition, not all groups are sold. The Sierra Club has declined to take a side, releasing a position paper outlining its support for the water conservation and environmental protection portions but ripping into the $2.7 billion for storage based on the group’s staunch anti-dam position.

For a variety of other groups, the prospect of more dams and surface-water diversion helped solidify their position against the bond (see a list of opposed groups here). Some notable environmental groups like Friends of the River and the California Water Impact Network are opponents for these reasons. Fishing groups and Delta organizations have also rallied against the bond, based on concerns that river diversions will harm fish populations and the Delta ecosystem.

The bond’s opponents make other arguments as well. No On Prop 1 makes three primary claims: the debt from the bond will make it harder to fund other projects, including education; the bond subsidizes special interests, like farmers and polluters, on the taxpayer’s dime; and it will not do much to address the current drought. Economist and blogger David Zetland expands on the last two points, arguing that pollution cleanup should be paid for by polluters and that increasing storage capacity will not make a big difference when most of existing storage capacity is empty. Barbara Barrigan-Parilla of Restore the Delta adds that the bond does not do enough to support water recycling, cleanup, and infrastructure repair, which would boost supply quickly, while throwing money at unrelated projects like bike trails along rivers.

Polling and Predictions

With one week until Election Day, polling indicates that Prop 1 is well positioned for a victory at the ballot box. A poll released last week by the Public Policy Institute of California showed that 56% of likely voters support the bond, with 32% opposed and 12% undecided. The PPIC poll found a partisan divide over the issue, with 68% of Democrats in support, compared to 43% of Republicans.

The latest PPIC poll continues a trend of positive results for Prop 1 throughout the fall. In early September, a Field Poll found that 52% of likely voters supported the measure, and a PPIC poll from mid-September showed 58% in support.

Stratecon’s analysis paints a more ambiguous picture of Prop 1’s prospects. The Stratecon Water Policy Marketplace, which allows users to express their opinion about the outcome of future events, shows Prop 1 having a 54.49% chance of passage as of October 27. The marketplace is meant to give a more responsive and continuous read on key issues through real-time trading of predictions, as opposed to the “snapshots” polling produces.

In mid-August, Rodney T. Smith, Ph.D. predicted on the Hydrowonk Blog that Prop 1 faced odds between 4/1 and 5/1 against passage. His analysis was based on the observation that voters were generally less supportive of water bonds as the state’s debt burden increased. Accordingly, Smith argued, “the legislature’s movement to a smaller bond has increased the odds of passage but, based on historical experience, securing voter approval may be an uphill battle.”

Based on this argument, Prop 1’s consistently strong polling is something of an anomaly. However, Smith noted that the drought might be enough to overcome voters’ hesitance, and there is good evidence that this could be happening. The October 22 PPIC poll found that the drought is very much on California voters’ minds. 26% said it was the most important issue facing the state, just 3% behind the top answer, jobs and the economy, and a full 20% ahead of the third-place answer, education. With the drought so salient, it seems that voters are willing to overlook their debt aversion. Still, it looks like the bond is facing more skepticism from the public than it did in the Legislature.

Written by Stratecon Staff