Water bonds failed bone-dry California. A 2022 initiative offers a different path.

On the 110th birthday of California’s initiative system, Don Wright asks: How about something different than bonds to fix California’s overworked water infrastructure?

The California ballot initiative celebrated its 110th birthday on October 10.

Dr. John Haynes moved to Los Angeles from Philadelphia in 1887 and started a successful medical practice.


He invested in real estate and made millions back when that was a lot of money. Haynes helped found the Direct Legislation League.

According to Ballotpedia and other sources – the Southern Pacific Railroad had a tight grip on Sacramento – a special interest, if you will although, I don’t think it was called High Speed Rail in those days.

Bribery and corruption was rampant.

Haynes helped found the Lincoln-Roosevelt League of Republican Clubs, an organization that helped prepare candidates for office.

This effort paid off in 1910 when the primary election of party candidates was begun. 

Hiram Johnson won the governor’s office and on October 10, 1911, a special election was held.

The end result of that election was the introduction of initiatives, referendums and the recall.

There’s another ballot initiative in the works pertaining to water. As you’ll see this one has some unique features and is very different from previous attempts.

The More Water Now coalition represents an effort to bring all Californians together to pass The Water Infrastructure Funding Act of 2022.

Water Before the Voters

Over the past decades there have been many “Water” initiatives or propositions presented to California’s voters. Some of them have included such wet provisions as funding for large public soccer field complexes and most of them had more to do with conservation and urban needs than increased storage and infrastructure. They also relied heavily on bonds to fund themselves.

Two recent water propositions have brought and dashed hope for Valley water needs: 2014’s Prop. 1 and 2018’s Prop. 3.

Prop Three brought almost $9 billion. It’s 52 pages had something for everyone. Billions of dollars were dedicated to the Bay Area and other urban use as well as the obligatory twins: the environment and disadvantaged communities. Tucked in there was $750 million to repair the Friant Kern Canal.

Prop. 3 lost by a hair – the nays edged out the yeas by 1.3 precent of the vote. It didn’t pass in Kern County and the rumor was because the folks there didn’t want California tax money going to a Federal project.

Even though the crops in Kern County didn’t care if the water was administered by the Feds or the state or that the much needed water originated in California more than 100 miles away in Fresno and Madera counties.

In contrast Prop. 1 passed by a large margin of more than 34 percent. It has $7.2 billion in bond funding with $2.7 billion set aside for storage.

A little poking around the internet shows what appears to be zero allocation of the $2.7 billion as of July 2, 2021, even though the California Water Commission had doled out the money to various projects back in December of 2017.

Need proof? Look at Chapter 8, at the bottom of page 2.

It’s one thing to pass a ballot initiative and another to get the money where it is supposed to go. The Public Policy Institute of California is pretty reliable when it comes to getting accurate facts out about these kinds of things.

It’s interesting to note half of the $2.7 billion for storage has a string attached; it has to benefit the ecosystem. No strings about benefiting feeding people by irrigating crops.

Overall I’d say the folks most involved directly with water in California have heard “wolf” cried so many times when it comes to water bonds in the propositions you can’t blame them for getting at least a little jaded. And please, allow me to make a distinction here. I’m referring to irrigated agriculture when it comes to “being most involved directly.”

There are others who work directly with water such as regulators and municipalities providing water and then treating wastewater. But at the end of the day even the most dedicated manager of a water treatment plant is getting paid by taxes and isn’t dependent on water supplies to the level of a farmer.

Nothing against these dedicated public servants but if it doesn’t rain and pumping restrictions are placed on a city, no one will fallow a neighborhood or close the public utility department to accommodate that reality.

A New Kind of Initiative

The State of California has been ignoring many needs and that’s being reflected in the unprecedented exodus from the state by businesses and individuals. Water is at the top of the list of deferred necessities. The state’s current water infrastructure was built to serve 16 million people. But since construction of any major water infrastructure in California was completed in the 1960s the population has blossomed to 40 million.

The current storage and conveyance is serving two and a half times as many people as it was designed for. It is well past time to update California’s water supply infrastructure.

One of the hardest hit segments of the state’s population has been agriculture. Unlike many businesses in the information age you can’t back up the moving van and load 500 acres of fruit trees and head out to Idaho or Texas. This is one of the reasons ag has traditionally invested in promoting water bonds.

So along comes another water-centric initiative, the Water Infrastructure Funding Act of 2022, also known as the More Water Now initiative.* A great deal of thought went into how this initiative was written.

Back in the spring of 2019 a group of legislators including state Sen. Andreas Borgeas (R–Fresno) and Asm. Devon Mathis (R–Visalia) and  wrote ACA 3-2019, also known as the Assembly Constitutional Amendment 3.

There are provisions in More Water Now language that closely resembles ACA 3.

Speaking with Mathis about More Water Now he said the initiative has gone through 11 or 12 revisions in an effort to get the wording correct. He said this isn’t a Christmas Tree Bond measure where everyone hangs their wishes on it until the entire thing falls over.

“We must secure on going funding for a diverse state portfolio to address climate change,” said Mathis.

First off, it is not strictly a bond measure, Christmas tree or otherwise; although funds generated by this act can be used to pay off bonds. Instead the Move Water Now proposal sets aside two percent of the state’s general fund revenue “each and every year into a trust account” and there is a trigger to stop this funding.

The initiative states two percent goes to the special trust account, “. . . until a minimum of 5 million acre feet of additional annual water supply can be reliably delivered to Californians every year thereafter.”

There’s a defined goal, five million additional acre feet of reliable annual water supply. But how much is that?

The Water Education Foundation states California receives on average about 200 million acre feet of precipitation annually. Five million acre feet is about .025 percent of the average, but that doesn’t have to be developed all in one year.

Over time when the five million acre feet is achieved the two percent set-aside goes away. This initiative has an end. It’s not a buggy whip tax that never dies.

More Water Now is fiscally sound, it has a built in expiration clause and addresses one of the state’s most neglected needs.

I believe there’s a very good argument to be made for passing More Water Now. California has determined everyone has a right to clean drinking water. Many disadvantaged communities depend on the agricultural economy. And, although you don’t hear about this much there are many disadvantaged communities that depend on ag surface deliveries for their groundwater as well as their jobs.

You take water out of the Valley’s ag economy and you harm the most vulnerable amongst us. Less economic activity, less employment, less tax income at the same time as increased demand for social services – it’s a bad mix.

And finally what happens to the wildlife refuges and water temperature control for salmon if there is not enough water in storage? Do you think Southern California or the Bay Area can stomach the kind of surface delivery shortages the Central Valley has faced? Or do you think the water that would have gone to the refuges will end up in the taps of California’s urban centers?

Certainly a temporary two percent of the general fund is a relatively small investment for California’s environment, economy and social future.

Dams in the Way to Passage?

So who in their right minds would oppose investing in something as universal to the common good as water?

No one, in their right minds, that’s who.

However, this is California water we’re talking about and there are drums in the distance saying some of the public employee unions may oppose this because it means less funneling of tax dollars to their coffers.

This is of course ultimately an economic death spiral as government drains more and more das capital from the private sector. And who knows? Perhaps the usual obstructionists will see the light and come to realize there has to be a functional private sector to support the public sector and that will require increased investment in water infrastructure.

There is also someone on the internet claiming the Southern California Sierra Club is telling folks Big Ag and the recall organizers are behind More Water Now. They are not.

I hope the members of the Sierra Club will research this initiative and not repeat falsehoods. If you know something is false and continue to repeat it, well that makes you a liar.

As for the rest of those who traditionally clutch pearls to their chests at the mention of more storage this is not a build more dams measure. There is nothing here that will bottle up some scenic, wild river. Funding for new storage or augmenting present above ground storage is allowed but may not be necessary. Also included as eligible for funding is  recharge, desalination, recycling and treatment of waste and storm water and the repair and upgrade of water systems – both treatment and conveyance.

Up to one million acre feet of the five million may come from conservation. And no less than the California Water Commission shall be the certifying authority keeping track of how much water supply has been achieved.

The Next Step

Having a great idea is many steps removed from implementing a great idea. The authors of Move Water Now had to submit the complete text of the proposed initiative to the state’s Attorneys General office along with a $2,000 fee which is refundable if the initiative qualifies for the ballot.

The AG has to prepare a title and summary of no more than 100 words and submit that to the Secretary of State.

Each proponent of the initiative has to submit a statement to the AG under penalty of perjury stating they are indeed a proponent of the initiative. Ok. The proponents are Ed Ring, Shawn Dewane, Wayne Western Jr., Geoff Vanden Heuvel and Stephen Rex Sheldon.

The Attorney General has to come up with an estimate of any increases or decreases in revenue or costs to the state and offer an opinion as to whether or not a substantial net change in finances will result. This is determined by the Legislative Analyst Office and that report was released October 15.

Also, the Attorney General has to send the title and summary to the State Senate and Assembly. The legislature can hold public hearings on the proposed initiative but can’t amend it or prevent it from appearing on the ballot.

On the day the Attorney General completes the official circulating title and summary and sends it back to the proponents the Secretary of State will use that date to start the clock ticking.

There are various deadlines that have to be met for things to stay eligible. There are reporting dates and a window of opportunity to collect the needed signatures to qualify the initiative for the ballot.

Petitions have to be circulated and there are some very exact requirements. For instance: the official top funders sheet must be in 14-point, black, roman type font, on a plain, contrasting background, centered horizontally, except as described. That top funders sheet is just one of many parts.

The petitions are the way in which the initiatives gather enough signatures to be included on the ballot. The More Water Now website states the goal is to gather at least one million signatures before April of 2022. That’s going to require a lot of folks pitching in and incorporating their organizations, businesses and community groups to help.

From the beginning of November to the end of April is about 180 days. They are going to have to collect 5,556 valid signatures each and every day to make that goal. So, it is going to take a small army of folks gathering signatures in front of Walmart’s and grocery stores all over the state to get enough signatures. And that costs money.

Provided the signatures are gathered and are deemed valid and I predict just such a thing will happen if folks are willing to invest in the signature gathering portion. The next big push is persuading more voters to cast a yes than no and a lot of hard work will pay off.

There are good reasons to believe More Water Now can pass.

First, an investment in California’s water infrastructure and supply is desperately needed. Second, MWN is good for the environment, disadvantaged communities and business. And in the long run will strengthen the state government by retaining tax paying businesses. Opposing it is opposing moving California forward into a 21st Century water resilient future. And thirdly its support is picking up momentum even before it is released for petition signatures. Already 27 Assembly members and State Senators have endorsed More Water Now.

This isn’t a group of 27 elected Republicans from Bakersfield. The endorsements are bipartisan with Republicans, Democrats and Independents from the Bay Area, the Central Valley, Southern California and the High Desert.

The Orange County Water District released as statement that said, “History will show this initiative to be a legacy moment where Californians came together to create a strong and reliable water supply for all people now and to come.”

OCWD serves 2.5 million people in Southern California. That’s a lot of votes right there.

“The key thing is,” said Mathis in regards to the initiative becoming successful, “it’s already the people’s money.”

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