A Field poll released last week on California's November ballot measures turned up an interesting finding: Proposition 18, the $11 billion water bond, is backed by Democrats and self-identified liberals by a margin of greater than two to one.
The passage of the water bond, which was part of a massive package of water bills debated by the legislature in November, is a top priority for Governor Schwarzenegger to the point where he has suggested moving it to the 2012 ballot if its prospects look too meek this year.
But the bond's name the "Safe, Clean and Reliable Drinking Water Act of 2010" and the meager amounts of money included in it for projects that Bay Area progressives support have complicated things. Bond proponents like to emphasize that the bond will fund conservation, local water projects, and wildlife habitat restoration.
Never mind that funding for those laudable efforts is insufficient at best, may never materialize given the state's poor credit rating, and will only be available after billions of dollars are paid out for projects like the construction of more dams, a 19th Century approach to managing water that is anything but progressive.
Statewide, wells serving more than 2 million Californians have been shown to have elevated levels of nitrate, a contaminant from fertilizer and animal manure that can cause oxygen depletion in babies. One of the dams vying for funding from the bond would funnel three-quarters of its water to agribusinesses responsible for this kind of contamination and would require no change in how these companies manage the water.
The bond would do nothing to reduce water exports from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, which effectively means that the decline of Pacific Coast salmon populations will continue unchecked. The next time a pro-bond spokesperson mentions how many jobs will be created if the bond is passed (to the joy of all those out-of-work dam builders?), consider the tradeoffs we will see in our fishing communities on the coast.
There is little in the bond that could be considered a public benefit. Only about 2% of bond funding is guaranteed for conservation efforts, and only 1% is slated for disadvantaged communities that shoulder some of the state's worst water problems. The beneficiaries of the bond will overwhelmingly be agribusinesses and Southern California developers that support the Governor, to whom the bulk of our state's water will continue to flow.
But unlike past bonds that require the beneficiaries of the projects to pay for them, this bond sends the bill to Main Street. Prop 18 is what's called a general obligation bond, meaning that debt repayment comes from the state's General Fund. This is the same fund that pays for essential public services like higher education, healthcare and home care, police and fire services, and state parks.
Those of us who have not been living under a rock are aware that these services can hardly afford more cuts. Debt repayment on the water bond will cost the state $800 million a year for 30 years enough to insure 900,000 children under the Healthy Families program for four years, or employ 12,000 teachers.
In the past, the Bay Area has supported water bonds for a good reason: They have provided, on average, a much greater share of funding for projects like drinking water quality improvement, assistance for disadvantaged communities, and local water projects.
But not all bonds are created equal. Supporting Prop 18 will require us to pay out billions for projects that will not benefit us before we see any money for projects that could. And the budgetary impact will gut important programs that improve our social safety net and quality of life.
The silver lining in last week's Field Poll was the finding that most respondents had not heard of the bond before they were asked about it. Let's hope that progressive voters across the state take the time to find out the truth about the bond before they see it on their ballots. More information is available at nowaterbond.com.
Elanor Starmer is the Western Region Director of Food & Water Watch (www.foodandwaterwatch.org), a consumer advocacy group in San Francisco, and part of the statewide coalition to oppose Proposition 18.