Thomas Elias: Unspent funds a good reason to delay new water bond |

Thomas Elias: Unspent funds a good reason to delay new water bond

California voters are often under the impression that once they OK a bond issue, that’s it. Construction on whatever the bond is to build will start forthwith.

Well, it’s not necessarily so. In fact, it’s not usually so. There are times, plenty of them, when the money sits around for years – sometimes a decade or more – before anyone decides how to spend it. Meanwhile, of course, the cost of anything to be built goes up as interest payments on the bond money go out.

Which brings us to the $9.3 billion water bond now being pushed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein and the state’s ever-thirsty (for money) water establishment.

Let’s say this up front: California unquestionably needs better water management. It’s a mistake to let millions of acre feet of winter flood waters run out to sea, where all that liquid accomplishes little or nothing.

There is no excuse for the paucity of water recycling projects around the state and every reason to set up more “gray water” programs using treated sewage on shrubs and lawns. There is no excuse for not acting on the canny proposal from Democratic state Sen. Dean Florez of Shafter to spend a paltry $5 million on a smelt hatchery that would grow enough delta smelt to mollify any federal judge who considers whether to continue reducing water flow from the delta of the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers.

All these tactics and more are needed in the face of continued drought, consistently lower Sierra Nevada snowpacks, population influxes, global warming and court decisions that put fish before people and food-growing farms.

But that doesn’t automatically mean the time is right for a new bond issue.

Just look what’s happened to the last few state water bonds. In 2006, for instance, voters handily passed Propo-sition 84, providing $5.4 billion for water projects and watershed protection. As of mid-July, only $2.8 billion of that money had been spent. Put the remaining $2.6 billion together with some remnants of earlier water bonds like the 2000 Proposition 13 and the 2002 Proposition 50 and close to $3 billion exists right now to take care of California water needs.

But politicians can’t agree on how to spend that money. If they can’t allocate cash on hand, why give them more?

The Florez fishery idea, for instance, would take only a tiny fraction of the available money but could solve a problem that forced water users to let 1 million more acre feet of water than usual run through the delta this year to further the habitat of the endangered smelt.

There is, of course, no evidence this serious reduction in water for farms and cities caused an increase in the smelt population. So why not try an artificial boost to the numbers of the silvery minnow-like fish?

For sure, that would be the cheapest way ever devised to produce 1 million acre feet of potable water yearly.

The shape of the proposed new bond, already hailed by the Association of California Water Agencies, San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders and a coalition of labor unions and big businesses, is not yet determined. For sure, it won’t get major Republican support unless it includes massive new reservoirs and it won’t get Democratic support without plenty of conservation and recycling measures.

No quarrel with either side there. California needs both more storage and better conservation and recycling. But who’s to say that any new bond would have more specific spending plans and timetables than the old ones?

And if it doesn’t, haggling over the new money will go on at least as long as it has over the existing, idle funds.

Meanwhile, California taxpayers would be paying interest on that money, day after day, year after year. Which would increase the “structural deficit” Schwarzenegger loves to complain about at budget time – even as he contributes to it by accumulating more bond interest obligations than any previous governor.

Yes, tentative versions of the new water bond include $3 billion for reservoirs and other new water storage. There would also be $2 billion for regional projects to increase water-use efficiency (read: recycling used water). And there would be $1.9 billion for “managing” the delta, which prob- ably means building something like the ever-controversial Peripheral Canal to carry Sacramento River water south while still releasing decent amounts of water into the delta.

Of course, the existing money that’s now sitting around could be used to start on any of these worthy plans. If lawmakers can’t agree on that, why give them scads of new money to fight about?

It adds up to a situation of great need that’s been badly mismanaged. Which makes the new bond a bad idea until someone proves state government is capable of using the water money it already has.

Thomas D. Elias is a syndicated columnist who writes about California issues. Contact him via e-mail at

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