As the new year approaches, it’s high time for some new ideas about California’s longest-running, most intransigent and often most emotional issue – water.
Whether you believe in climate change and global warming or not, there is no doubt this state is in yet another long-running drought, the third of the last quarter century. These have typically lasted anywhere from four to seven years.
Whether you believe glaciers are receding all over the world –including atop the high Sierra Nevada -– because of a natural cycle or due to human activity, no one questions the fact that snowpack in the mountains is at unusually low levels and has been for several years. Or that reservoirs like Shasta Lake, Pyramid Lake, Lake Powell, and the San Luis Reservoir are extremely dry around the edges.
There’s also no doubt about California’s continuing population growth, even if it has slowed a bit from the breakneck pace of prior decades, nor is there any dispute the growth produces greater demand for water.
And there’s also little doubt that this year’s state budget will run a deficit approaching $14 billion or that future budgets will become ever harder to negotiate unless there’s some new source of revenue.
It looks like an almost unprecedented stew of bad news. But that’s not necessarily so.
For one thing, the impending water shortage and last fall’s threatened revival of “drought police” patrols in Los Angeles and elsewhere has spurred both Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and state lawmakers to move water off the back burner and make it a major new issue.
For another, there is now general agreement that the state needs new water storage, be it behind dams or in underground aquifers. One new report from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and other government biologists advocates a Peripheral Canal-like project as the best way to revive water quality in the delta of the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers.
That’s significant movement, even if there’s no consensus yet on the precise form new water storage should take. But there is a huge question over how to pay for all this in an era of reduced government revenues.
Plainly, no one likes new taxes. Schwarzenegger’s first move as governor was to keep a campaign promise and cut the vehicle tax by more than $4 billion a year, a move that’s contributed significantly to budget deficits ever since.
That’s why he and the Legislature want to turn to bonds as the best way they can conceive to finance the water projects they agree will be needed, whatever their final nature. At least one proposal to borrow money this way for water projects will be on the ballot later this year.
While bonds may build the needed water facilities, they are also guaranteed to make budgets harder to balance for the entire 30 years it would take to pay them off. For $10 billion in bonds invariably means about $20 billion in spending over about 30 years.
That’s why it’s time for new ideas. Time to get away from the trend of the last 15 years of funding all types of public works with borrowed money.
The reality of the water proposals is that even after their shapes and locations are agreed upon, they will take at least 10 years to build in their entirety. Maybe 15.
This means paying for these public works as they are built would add no more to each year’s budget than the bonds would – but the bleeding of money would stop 15 years sooner that way because there would be no interest to pay.
Yes, this would take courage. It would require determination. It would take dedication over a span of years during which today’s governor and all current legislators would be termed out. So it would also require that they believe in the people voters will elect to replace them.
It would also take institutional memory: New lawmakers would have to remember where the money is going and why.
But if it were done for these projects and all future new infrastructure, California could build twice as many roads, buy twice as many parks, build twice as much water storage as it now can by floating bond issues.
How’s that for an old-fashioned new idea?