Friday, October 29, 2010




No one disputes that certain parts of California need more water than they’ve been getting in recent years. All it takes to know the need is a look at some of the fallowed fields now fairly common in the Central Valley and the unemployment rolls of many towns near those fields, places like Firebaugh and Mendota.

Many Californians expected a chance to do something this fall about the shortage that exists even now, though it has lessened in the wake of last winter’s unusually heavy rain and snowfall. That action was to come in the form of an $11.1 billion bond issue that at one point was set for a vote this fall.

The vote never came. Why? Because a wave of pessimism, plus the realization of some serious flaws in the proposed bond measure, caused even the proposal’s most ardent supporters to back off and hope times are better suited two years from now for asking voters to spend huge amounts of money.

Those supporters were absolutely convinced that if they’d gone forward this fall, the bond would have lost and taken with it any hope for an eventual compromise leading to better water supplies, better water quality in the Delta of the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers and better security for the hundreds of thousands of Californians who live in the shadow of often-rickety levees that keep billions of gallons within Delta waterways and out of homes and fields.

It marked the first time in modern California history that a major decision about the future of this state was taken in a spirit of severe pessimism, rather than optimism about the future.

For in this state been built upon more than 100 years of steady growth and a sense that the future holds more promise than the present – also called the “California Dream” – several polls now show a healthy percentage of the citizenry believes today’s children will face a tougher life than have their parents.

That’s what the Great Recession has wrought. Not even the Great Depression that began just over 80 years ago had such an ill effect on California. Back then, California was seen as a land of promise; today for some it is a land of problems.

So the putative water bond, which promised to greatly reduce unemployment in some farm areas while making many fisherman fear it might put them onto those very same unemployment rolls, was pulled back by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who came into office as a jaunty Popeye-style showman and will leave with his tail mostly between his legs, unable even to get the latest stopgap budget passed until it was three months overdue.

But the water bond delay was not purely due to pessimism. There was also the matter of dealing with its obvious flaws.

For one thing, more than $4 billion remains unspent from previous water-related bond issues. Some critics suggested using that money toward the projects of the new bond.

The proposed new bond also was replete with pork-barrel aspects like $20 million earmarked for buying more land in the Baldwin Hills Conservancy near the home of former Assembly Speaker Karen Bass of Los Angeles, who is about to ascend to Congress. To get support for this from Orange County Republicans, there was also $20 million for interpretive projects in the Bolsa Chica wetlands.

Voters looking over the list might have wondered how a bit more urban parkland and a few exhibits would help solve the state’s drought problems, the stated aim of the water bond.

But the bulk of the money was still to go for water management programs, watershed restoration and protection – and $3 billion for water storage projects.

Ever vigilant against any threat of any kind of system to carry Northern California river water through or around the Delta for transmission to Central Valley farmers and Southern California city dwellers, the Sierra Club and other conservationists smelled a rat amid that $3 billion. They thought the bond’s language was unspecific enough to allow at least a start on such a conveyance, best known as a peripheral canal.

There was also the question of whether these projects should be built via bonds at all, when those bonds would add as much as $756 million to the state’s yearly bond-payment bill. Why not use a pay-as-you-go system, said some critics. Do that and you pay no interest, meaning you can do as much for about $375 million yearly as for double the amount with bonds. Since the projects involved would be built over at least 15 years anyway, pay-as-you-go makes sense – if today’s voters can count on future legislators to keep the cash spigot open for water-projects.

All of which means California has a unique opportunity over the next year or so before the water bond ballot language must be finalized. The obvious pork can be removed from this package. The payment method can be altered. The list of projects made more specific.

If all this is done, maybe the water bond will draw wider support so its backers won’t have to beg off once again. Which just might contribute to reviving California’s optimism as it pulls out of today's economic doldrums.

Email Thomas Elias at His book, "The Burzynski Breakthrough," is now available in a soft cover fourth edition. For more Elias columns, visit

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