SACRAMENTO — Before casting a vote on the $3.4-billion water bond issue on the November ballot, a reasonable voter might ask what California got for the three other water bonds passed in the last six years.
The answer isn't simple. The past bond sales didn't buy a big new dam or reservoir to carry the state safely through drought.
Instead, like cash hurled from a helicopter, the money has landed in hundreds of scattered projects, including no-flush urinals in Pasadena schools, $500 vouchers for coin-laundry owners in San Diego and the planting of native willows along the San Joaquin River.
Proposition 50 promises to be more of the same. Unusual in that it was written by a small group of environmentalists, not hammered out in the Legislature, the measure has nonetheless won the support of much of the state's water industry. Backers call it a necessary mortgage payment on a more drought-resistant, safe and environmentally healthy water system.
Opponents, including the California Farm Bureau Federation and the California Taxpayers' Assn., say the latest bond measure once again has plenty of money for preserving land, but not enough for developing new sources of water.
A September poll by the nonprofit Field Institute showed likely voters were almost evenly divided on the measure. But television advertising in support of the bond issue hasn't begun, and the Yes on 50 campaign has the generous support of a handful of developers who stand to benefit from $950 million in bond sales earmarked for purchase and restoration of coastal wetlands.
Donors to a political committee established by the measure's chief backer, the Planning and Conservation League, include the owners of land at such preservation battlegrounds as the Bolsa Chica wetlands in Orange County, the Ballona wetlands in West Los Angeles and the Cargill Inc. salt ponds along San Francisco Bay.
Ending Epic Struggles
For example, Playa Capital Co., builder of a 1,087-acre development near the Ballona wetlands, has donated $830,000 this year to the Planning and Conservation League's Conservation Action Fund. Signal Landmark, which is trying to build houses on the Bolsa Chica mesa, gave $200,000.
Other developers have donated to a separate political committee run by the Trust for Public Land, which helped pay to qualify Proposition 50 for the November ballot. One $25,000 donation came from land speculator Brian A. Sweeney, who seeks to build mansions on a rugged parcel north of Malibu coveted for preservation by the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy.
Joe Caves, the league attorney who helped write the measure, said the aim is to end several epic struggles over development along California's coast.
"The bulldozers are moving at Ballona, and the question is, can we come up with a resolution ... so that we have, at the end of the day, a chance to have a large, functioning, coastal wetland in Los Angeles," said Caves. "That's key to the long-term environmental health of the Santa Monica Bay, and if they put apartment buildings all over it, that opportunity's lost."
The bond measure, Caves said, targets land for its ecological value, not to win political donations from developers.
"Nobody has a guaranteed acquisition, nobody has a guaranteed price," he said, noting that any land bought with bond money must go through government review and appraisals.
A good share of the bonds--$1.5 billion--is dedicated to local and state agencies for desalinating ocean water, removing contaminants such as perchlorate, upgrading water treatment plants, preventing pollution and improving security at water structures.
If past water bond sales are a guide, the money would be disbursed through competitive grants to hundreds of projects such as drilling wells in North Hollywood, retrofitting machines for developing X-ray film so they use less water and installing temporary, inflatable dams on the San Gabriel River to skim off water to be stored underground.
Though there's no guarantee that voters will pass the measure, the Legislature and governor are counting on it.
On the last day of the legislative session, lawmakers dipped into Proposition 50's hypothetical money. They passed a law, signed by Gov. Gray Davis last month, that earmarks $150 million to help pay for a transfer of water from the Imperial Irrigation District to San Diego. That transfer is critical to helping the state meet a federal deadline to reduce its Colorado River consumption.
The governor has yet to take a position on the measure. But he signed a bill that dedicates $50 million of the bond money to the Salton Sea, which could become too salty to sustain fish if too much water is transferred from the Imperial Valley.
A big chunk of Proposition 50--$825 million--would keep alive the CalFed Bay-Delta Program, an ambitious, many-tentacled effort started by former Gov. Pete Wilson and U.S. Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt in 1994.