Panelists Discuss Water Bond, CEQA at ACWA Legislative Symposium
The $11.14 billion water bond slated for the 2014 ballot needs trimming, but the compromise reached in 2009 should remain the starting point for any legislative talks this year, several speakers said March 5 at ACWA’s Legislative Symposium in Sacramento.
The day-long legislative symposium featured panels on the water bond, reform of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) and possible changes to AB8, the state’s property tax allocation system.
ACWA Executive Director Tim Quinn introduced the first panel on the water bond, stressing that the bond is a way to fund the coequal goals of water reliability and ecosystem restoration. Those goals were the pivot point of the landmark package of water bills approved in 2009 after lengthy negotiations by lawmakers and leaders in the water world.
Quinn added, however, that he bets “every person in this room agrees that we need to change the bond in order to be successful. But how do we do that?”
Mark Cowin, director of the California Department of Water Resources (DWR), stressed that the 2009 package of bills “represents a rare pathway to agreement.”
“We ought to use that as the starting point for the negotiations,” Cowin said of any talks that may take place in the Legislature about changing the size and contents of the bond.
Speaking during a morning panel on the water bond, Cowin emphasized that Gov. Jerry Brown has not taken any formal position on the size or contents of the bond. Cowin added, however, that if Brown sought his advice, he would recommend that the bond be downsized to somewhere around $10 billion or “slightly below.”
Cowin went on to state his funding priorities for the bond, which were, in order of importance to him: funding for Delta habitat restoration in the Bay Delta Conservation Plan (BDCP), funding for Delta levees and Delta interests, state matching funding for Integrated Regional Water Management (IRWM) and funding for water storage.
“More water storage is going to be essential to keep the water supply reliability we see today,” Cowin said.
Jay Ziegler, director of external affairs and policy for The Nature Conservancy, said several factors will play heavily in whether a water bond will be successful with voters. A strong economy and dry weather might make approval of a water bond easier, although it may still be difficult, he said, particularly if there is significant oppositon.
Danny Curtin, director of the California Conference of Carpenters and a member of the California Water Commission, said that part of the problem leaders may face in convincing voters to approve a bond is that water agencies have done such a good job delivering clean, cheap water, that voters may take water for granted and think no change is needed.
“You are so good at engineering the system the public thinks it’s great. I think it will be hard to tell them that it is at the point of collapse or worse, we are about to raise your rates,” Curtin said.
During the late morning panel on AB8, several speakers stressed that they fear proposals to change the state’s tax allocation system may be on the horizon. They said the Legislative Analyst’s Office (LAO) released a report in November that outlined the history, problems and procedures of the current tax allocation system. A few years ago, a similar report was issued by the LAO on redevelopment agencies and the Legislature later moved to abolish the agencies.
The panelists stressed that water agencies need to be clear about what they use their property taxes for – infrastructure, debt consolidation, deferred maintenance – so they can explain the taxes’ importance to legislators who may consider shifting the funds away from agencies to the state or another entity.
Gary Arant, general manager of the Valley Center Municipal Water District, stressed that if agencies lose their property taxes, they will have to raise their rates, which might not be easy.
“We have a new paradigm in California,” said Arant. “It is not so easy to raise rates.”
During the panel discussion on proposals to change CEQA, panelists said there are currently about 26 bills in the Legislature to overhaul CEQA, the state’s primary environmental law. The speakers stressed that no one is proposing dumping the environmental law in its entirety, instead lawmakers are looking at ways to cut areas of the law that have led to unnecessary litigation.
One of the areas for possible change is to abolish the practice of “document dumping” or unloading scores of public comment on environmental impact reports right at the deadline, forcing agencies to go through a lengthy last-minute review of the comments. A possible solution would be to change deadlines for comments to earlier in the EIR process.
Asm. Luis A. Alejo (D-Salinas), chair of the Assembly Environmental Safety and Toxic Materials Committee, delivered the keynote lunchtime address. Alejo discussed the array of bills that have been introduced in the Legislature to address safe drinking water issues.