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Farmers Come Out Against Rail-Water Initiative

FRESNO BEE: Opposition is mounting against a ballot initiative to move funding from high-speed rail toward water projects. Those opposing the initiative believe it would harm efforts to build new dams through money to be allocated from Proposition 1, passed in 2014

Written by Tim Sheehan Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes

A group of central San Joaquin Valley agriculture, government and Latino leaders is raising an alarm about a proposed ballot initiative to take money away from high-speed rail and use it instead for water-storage projects in California.

Their opposition to the initiative – which is now being circulated for signatures to qualify for the November ballot – is rooted not in support for the controversial bullet-train project, but because the measure would also divert $2.7 billion in water-storage money from Proposition 1, a water bond act approved by more than two-thirds of California voters in 2014.

Doing so, they said in a meeting Wednesday with The Bee’s editorial board, would disrupt the California Water Commission’s current process to begin allocating the bond funds early next year and jeopardize prospects for major new reservoirs at Temperance Flat on the San Joaquin River above Millerton Lake northeast of Fresno and Sites Reservoir in Colusa County.

“We’re fully engaged in the process that’s been created by Prop. 1,” said Tulare County Supervisor Steve Worthley, the chairman of a new joint-powers water authority that includes representatives from Fresno, Kings, Madera, Merced and Tulare counties. “This constitutional amendment would basically change the whole dynamic, pull the money out from under the commission and give it to another authority that doesn’t even exist today.” The five-county authority has not yet taken a position on the initiative, Worthley added.

Backers of the new initiative have until July 25 to collect the 585,407 signatures needed to qualify for the November ballot. It was put together by the Hanford-based California Water Alliance and is supported by State Sen. Robert Huff, R-Diamond Bar, and state Board of Equalization Member George Runner, R-Lancaster.

The measure would reverse Proposition 1A, the $9.9 billion high-speed rail bond measure approved by voters in 2008, by shifting about $8 billion in unsold rail bonds to water-storage projects. It would also shift the $2.7 billion in water-storage money away from California Water Commission’s decision-making structure set up by Proposition 1. Both pots of money would be diverted to a new State Water and Groundwater Storage Facilities Authority to choose projects that would receive the bond money.

Manuel Cunha, president of the Fresno-based Nisei Farmers League, likened the new California Water Alliance/Huff/Runner initiative to a Trojan horse, appealing to widespread antipathy toward the high-speed train project “to take away the millions of dollars and hours that were spent crafting the Prop. 1 water bond to build both Temperance and Sites.”

“If this Trojan horse gets onto the ballot and wins, it will destroy everything we’ve worked for and put us back maybe a whole decade,” he added.

Worthley was more tempered but still criticized the initiative as “disingenuous.”

“It’s being sold very simplistically on a populist notion that many people are opposed to high-speed rail, so the idea that we would take high-speed rail dollars to put toward water holds tremendous appeal in our area,” Worthley said. “But when you drill down, it does more than that. It takes money away from Prop. 1, and folds it in with the high-speed rail funds, and that’s what jeopardizes the entire process.”

While Prop. 1 money will start flowing from the California Water Commission in March 2017, Mario Santoyo of the Sacramento-based Latino Water Coalition predicted that the new initiative, if ultimately approved by voters, would spur widespread litigation that could delay any money for any project for many more years.

“From the first discussions with Gov. Schwarzenegger in 1999, we knew there had to be something (in Prop. 1) for every Californian who was going to vote on this proposal,” he said. In addition to the $2.7 million for water-storage projects, the measure included almost $5 billion for other efforts such as desalination, water recycling and groundwater cleanup. “It was a comprehensive package, and that’s the only reason why in 2009 we were successful in getting it through the Legislature.”

Santoyo said he has high hopes that the Temperance Flat project, with the backing of the five-county joint powers agency, could land as much as $1 billion to $1.5 billion from the California Water Commission’s allocation of Proposition 1 money. That funding, he said, could then be used to leverage participation from the federal government to make up the balance of the estimated $3 billion needed to build the new dam.

The prospect of extended legal challenges to the new initiative “puts this money into a place where you can’t do anything with it for who knows how long,” Santoyo said. “We’re much better off going to the finish line with what we’ve started.”

Joining Santoyo, Worthley and Cunha Wednesday in opposing the new initiative were Mendota Mayor Robert Silva of the Latino Water Coalition and the Northern California Water Association. The California Water Commission tasked with doling out the Prop. 1 money is a nine-member panel appointed by the governor and confirmed by the state Senate. Under the initiative, the Water and Groundwater Storage Facilities Authority would be a nine-member board, with two members elected by water districts in each of the state’s four regions and one elected at large.

Aubrey Bettencourt, executive director of the California Water Alliance, said she believes such concerns are misplaced. The initiative being circulated for signatures includes a “grandfather” clause that would allow – but not require – the new water authority to adopt and approve the projects under consideration under the California Water Commission’s process. That provision was added to the initiative in December in response to concerns voiced by other water interest groups. Bettencourt added that her organization sought input from numerous farm groups, including the Nisei Farmers League, on the language of the initiative. She said Cunha never responded on behalf of the Nisei group.

The $2.7 million in Prop. 1 money “is not guaranteed” to either the Temperance Flat or Sites reservoir projects, Bettencourt added. “We line-item money specifically toward Sites and Temperance, to be fully funded using funds from high-speed rail, and allowing for the existing process to carry on … We worked vary hard to make sure progress wasn’t lost.”

She discounted the notion that the initiative is a high-speed-rail killer disguised as a water measure following earlier failed efforts to reverse the 2008 high-speed rail bond. “As our organization was putting this together, it was not a matter of how can we kill high-speed rail,” Bettencourt said. “It came to a question of what are our priorities in our state. For us and, we believe, a majority of Californians, that is water … High-speed rail has been a bottom priority of voters for the last two years.”

Worthley said he opposes the high-speed rail program, but still has doubts about the initiative. “I think it’s overreaching,” he said. “It’s an effort to do something without recognizing that it could actually undo all the hard work that got us to the point where we are now.”

For more coverage of the California drought and water issues, please visit the Fresno Bee.

Top image: A full-scale mock-up of a high-speed train is displayed at the Capitol in Sacramento, Calif., in February 2015. A recent effort is underway to put an initiative on the November ballot to move money for high-speed rail to water projects. (Rich Pedroncelli, Associated Press)

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