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Initiative to fund and fast track water projects is badly needed

California is in the grip of its fourth drought since 2000. To cope with worsening droughts, over the past few decades Californians have made impressive gains in water efficiency. Total water diversions in California for agriculture and cities – roughly 30 million acre feet per year for agriculture and 8 million acre feet per year for cities – have not increased even while California’s population has grown and irrigated farm acreage has increased. But conservation alone cannot guarantee Californians have an adequate supply of water.

The Water Infrastructure Funding Act, a proposed ballot initiative that may be headed for the November 2022 state ballot, aims to solve the challenge of water scarcity in California. Rather than pick projects for funding, it defines project categories that are eligible for funding. Principal among them are funds for wastewater recycling, storm water runoff capture, aquifer remediation and recharge, off-stream reservoir construction and expansion, and aqueduct repair.

The value of this approach is to ensure that funding from this initiative is consistent with projects already planned by state, regional and local water agencies. In San Jose, for example, it will cost billions to build wastewater recycling plants. But that would be a high priority project under this initiative to receive the necessary funds.

The centerpiece of the proposed initiative is the requirement to set aside 2% of the state general fund for water projects until 5 million acre feet of water per year is produced by a combination of new water projects and new conservation programs. It is likely that 2 million acre feet could be supplied through treating and reusing wastewater throughout the state. Another 2 million acre feet of storm runoff could be captured each year in off-stream reservoirs, floodwater wetlands, and underground aquifers. The initiative also funds programs to recover an additional 1 million acre feet per year through conservation programs.

But this inspiring goal is accompanied by a provision of equal importance, a project category eligible for funding that focuses not only on water quantity, but water quality, and water equity. Quoting from the initiative itself, also eligible for funding are “projects designed to increase the clean, safe and affordable supply of water to all Californians with emphasis on California’s disadvantaged communities.”

The California State Water Board recently identified a $4.6 billion funding gap just to fix California’s most at-risk municipal water systems. These inadequate water systems disproportionately impact people living in California’s underserved communities, especially those with higher Black or Latino populations. This initiative explicitly includes these projects as eligible for funding.

Another necessary part of this initiative are moderate revisions to the California Environmental Quality Act and the Coastal Act. All the funding in the world will not solve California’s urgent need for more water infrastructure if reasonable time limits aren’t placed on environmental review. And because the initiative leaves the final choice of which projects to approve in the hands of the California Water Commission, it is extremely unlikely a project will go forward unless environmental concerns are adequately addressed.

During those fortunate years when California still has more rain than it can handle, the need to build more water infrastructure loses its urgency. But a state as wealthy and innovative as California should never have to live with water rationing. Investing in next generation, environmentally friendly projects to create water abundance is within our grasp. We should seize this opportunity.

Edward Ring is a contributing editor and senior fellow with the California Policy Center, which he co-founded in 2013.

This article originally appeared as a guest opinion in the San Jose Mercury News.

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