Here is a plan to create more water for California

Former Congressman Tom Campbell’s recent commentary “Why the delay on critical water storage projects,” published on these pages on January 3, criticized the California Water Commission’s ongoing failure to build the water storage projects that were approved by voters in 2014. There is an answer to the concerns raised by Campbell: The Water Infrastructure Funding Act of 2022, a constitutional initiative proposed for the November 2022 state ballot.

This initiative, currently being circulated for signatures, requires two percent of the state’s general fund be used to construct new water supply projects, and it doesn’t sunset until new projects add five million acre feet per year to the state’s water supply. Two million acre feet per year can come from waste water recycling, another 1 million from conservation programs, and the rest from runoff capture into off-stream reservoirs and aquifers. And to ensure projects are environmentally responsible, it still gives the California Water Commission the final authority over what projects to fund.

Instead of identifying specific projects for funding, this initiative carefully defines eligible projects to include everything that would produce more water, from conservation and water recycling, aquifer recharge, new reservoirs and aqueduct restoration to runoff capture and brackish/ocean water desalination. It also funds remediation projects, such as replacing the pipes in public schools in Los Angeles.

The initiative is attracting broad based and bipartisan support. The centerpiece of the proposed initiative is the requirement to set aside two percent of the state general fund until 5 million acre feet of water per year is produced by a combination of new water projects and new conservation programs. But this 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 (Section 3, subsection (b), part 6), 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.”

There is a strong environmentalist argument in favor of more water infrastructure. If climate change is a genuine threat, then the need to upgrade California’s water infrastructure becomes more urgent, not less. This initiative funds projects to store storm runoff in off-stream reservoirs and underground aquifers. It funds projects to recycle urban wastewater. It leaves the choice of projects to approve up to the Water Commission, which environmentalists can hardly accuse of being hostile to environmentalist priorities.

There is also a compelling economic argument for more water infrastructure. Subsidizing water infrastructure is easily a tax neutral proposition, if not positive. Lowering the cost of water means lower prices for food, utility bills, housing, and all other products and services that depend on affordable water. This means tax revenues spent subsidizing water projects are offset by less government spending on subsidies and rebates to low and middle income households. And the economic growth enabled by more affordable water creates more profits and more tax revenue.

This simple economic argument, which leans old-school Democrat and decentralizes wealth, used to inform public infrastructure spending without debate. In the 1930s, the Works Progress Administration publicly funded roads, public buildings, rural electrification, and water infrastructure that are still paying economic dividends today. Similarly, in the 1950s and 1960s, the California State Water Project publicly funded a water system that, despite decades of neglect, enables millions to live in coastal cities.

It is time to upgrade California’s water infrastructure for the 21st century. Voters deserve the chance to make that happen.

Edward Ring is the lead proponent of the Water Infrastructure Funding Act of 2022, a proposed state ballot initiative.

This article originally appeared as a guest opinion in the Orange County Register.

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