Proposed ballot measure would create water infrastructure

Silicon Valley is known for its startup culture where so-called angel investors provide financing to launch companies that aspire to change the world.

Innovations spawned in Silicon Valley have indeed changed the world, and in the process, made the San Francisco Bay Area home to thousands of near-billionaires and billionaires.

With wealth like that comes social responsibility and political power, and many of the individuals wielding this wealth have stepped up. Powerful individuals from Silicon Valley are changing the destiny of the world.

Might not the world’s destiny be improved if there was abundant water, everywhere? Shouldn’t California set an example to the world, instead of accepting a future of water scarcity and rationing?

The More Water Now campaign was formed to qualify the Water Infrastructure Funding Act to appear as a state ballot initiative in November. Nearly every expert in California agrees that more water infrastructure is necessary; that conservation alone will not protect Californians from the impact of climate change. Projects to capture storm runoff and recycle urban wastewater are urgently needed, and this initiative provides the funding to get it done.

Nonetheless, the campaign finds itself in the inexplicable position of having a solution everyone wants, but nobody wants to pay to qualify it for the ballot.

Private sector construction unions, who could enlist hundreds of thousands of their members to sign petitions, are hesitant to take on the environmentalist lobby. Construction contractors have deep pockets, but don’t want to see environmental activists target them in retaliation for their support. Water agencies all over California desperately need the funds this initiative would unlock, but don’t want to rock the boat too much.

Farmers offer the most poignant example of why the More Water Campaign still hasn’t attracted more financial support. With no water to irrigate crops, they’re just trying to survive. Now, with an initiative that focuses as much on urban water recycling as on storing runoff, the farmers expect help from other sectors, as they should.

So where are the angels? With the real cost of food, water, energy and housing higher now than they were 40 years ago, whatever happened to the Silicon Valley mantra of “better, faster, cheaper”? Does that value only apply to cyberspace, and not the real world?

There is a strong environmentalist argument in favor of more water infrastructure. With the threat of climate change, 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 California 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.

Where are the angels?

This article originally appeared as guest commentary on the website Cal Matters.

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