Split enviro groups ready to rumble over $11B water-bond referendum

Corrections appended.

California environmental groups are split over whether to support an $11 billion water bond on the November ballot, setting up a family feud between activists who usually stand shoulder-to-shoulder against corporate interests.

The bond is backed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R), Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D), the California Farm Bureau, construction companies and dozens of irrigation districts, to name its most prominent advocates. But also working for the initiative are the Nature Conservancy, Audubon California and the Natural Heritage Institute.

That deep-pocketed coalition will be opposed by Sierra Club California, the Planning and Conservation League, Friends of the River and Clean Water Action, among others. Also set to oppose the bond are a number of Democratic and Republican state legislators, mostly from the Bay area and the Sacramento region.

Aside from commercial fishermen, the business community is fairly unified behind the bond, which would fund billions of dollars in infrastructure upgrades favored by Schwarzenegger. That could mean new dams, reservoirs, levees and canals, in addition to water- and sewage-treatment upgrades -- not to mention the injection of construction jobs and government dollars that would follow the bond passage.


The Nature Conservancy is among the most active of the environmental groups caught up in the process, working behind the scenes to fund the Alliance for Clean Water and New Jobs, a pro-bond campaign committee that has already gathered more than $600,000 in contributions to promote the measure. Of those contributions, $210,000 has come from the California Conservation Action Fund, which is bankrolled in part by the Nature Conservancy.

Jay Ziegler, director of policy and external affairs for the Nature Conservancy in California, said the split has developed because his group, unlike those opposed, views the bond as the best available deal on the table to lower the state's dependence on the troubled San Joaquin-Sacramento River Delta. Rival environmental groups are opposed out of a fear that the bond would favor construction of new dams and ultimately privatization of reservoirs, but Ziegler insisted the bond is worded to preclude that possibility.

The delta, which delivers water to millions of Californians and to the heart of the state's agriculture industry, has been caught up in an ongoing court battle over endangered salmon for too long, Ziegler said. Building new infrastructure, including a possible canal around the delta, might take the pressure off, he argued.

"That's one of the things that has really been missed in discussions about the water bond," Ziegler said. "It will diversify California's water supply."

The Nature Conservancy's official position is the bond would help end the reverse flows at the southern end of the delta, which is where pumps to the San Joaquin Valley are located, and represents the best solution for helping salmon and delta smelt and restoring the region's ecosystem. Ziegler said the billions of dollars would also upgrade an aging system that was designed for 16 million Californians, not a current population cresting toward 40 million.

"We're effectively living in a situation where the delta is managed by court decree," he said. "We want to move beyond that scenario. The bond represents the best solution to do that."

Dams seen as beneficiaries

Opponents counter that the bond would favor big agribusiness and water districts that tend to overuse and pollute water. They add that a deep economic recession is not the time to approve another $11 billion in government obligations given the state's $20 billion deficit and history of free spending on public projects.

"They have a huge mountain to climb to convince the public that it's worth spending billions on dams, which the public understands are a very inefficient way to get more water, during this economic climate," said Tina Andolina, legislative director at the Planning and Conservation League. "I believe in good years this bond would go down because the policies in it are outdated. In these bad economic times, it's a no-brainer."

Renee Maas, a senior organizer at Food and Water Watch, adds that most of the water freed by the bond would benefit the Westlands Water District, which is one of the litigants behind the court battle over salmon and smelt. She said the bond is tilted to favor "the funding priorities of large-scale dams in the Central Valley" and could lead to privatization of water access if private entities step in to complete construction of new reservoirs.

"That's how this bond is going to work," Maas said. "This is really bad fiscal policy, and it's a giveaway to big corporations."

But would the bond really favor dams? Jim Metropulos, a veteran legislative expert at Sierra Club California, insisted the answer is yes. He suspects the strategy on the other side is to act as if the language does not favor dams, but the real intent is to build new surface storage capacity, he said. And farms and water districts are willing to shell out big bucks to win, he added.

"It's a small investment for them because they are looking for a payout of $11.4 billion," Metropulos said.

But the Alliance for Clean Water and New Jobs contests this portrayal. A source at the group said the language would force surface storage and groundwater "to compete based on strict criteria to ensure the most efficient projects that provide the most public benefits are funded."

"All storage projects have to provide a net improvement in ecosystem and water quality conditions in order to be eligible for consideration," the group's fact sheet says.

This is why Ziegler's chapter has been persuaded to go against the grain and support the bond, which he said would spread the $11 billion around, with $1.785 billion earmarked for land conservation and ecosystem restoration. Critics have noted that the group stands to get a lot of money to buy land, but Ziegler said his motivation is to improve the delta.

"We also believe that the funding will be matched by significant additional resources," he said, estimating private investment to follow the bond in the $40 billion to $50 billion range.

Financial advantage?

Regardless, both sides admit a good deal of money is likely to be spent on the battle, mostly by the side that favors the bond.

Ballot initiatives tend to lose in California, so the onus is usually on the measure's advocate to aggressively promote its position.

Neither Ziegler nor others close to the Alliance for Clean Water and New Jobs would comment on how much they are likely to spend. Whatever the amount, which seems likely to be in the tens of millions of dollars, Andolina speculated that the funding ratio would favor the pro-bond crowd by about 10 to 1.

Metropulos said it is too soon to speculate on spending, but he does expect a large infusion of funds after the June 8 primary in California. That is when political operatives will start focusing on the bond and another major ballot measure that would suspend the state's climate law, he said.

"They're going to pour their money in," Metropulos said. "They have a lot of money."

Even so, Andolina and Metropulos -- both veterans of California politics -- said they do not expect the funding advantage to matter. Metropulos pointed out that oilman T. Boone Pickens poured millions of dollars into a proposition in 2008 that would have increased public investment in natural gas technologies only to lose that campaign.

"You obviously need dollars to get your message out, but there are other ways to get your message out," Metropulos said, citing plans to run an extensive grassroots campaign.

Added Andolina: "It is up to us to tell folks what's in this bond. We don't need a multi-million dollar campaign to do that."

Sullivan reported from San Francisco.

Corrections: Food and Water Watch's organizer is Renee Maas; her name was misspelled in an earlier version. The Natural Heritage Institute -- not the National Heritage Institute, as stated earlier -- is among the organizations supporting the water bond.

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