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CA May Choose Between Water and Rail

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

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A movement is afoot in California that seeks to divert funds intended for the state’s high speed rail plans to water infrastructure projects instead.

The efforts are backed by the California Water Alliance, a group largely composed of farmers in the San Joaquin Valley who feel that the state’s water needs deserve primary attention—and funding—in a time of drought, the San Jose Mercury News reported Thursday (March 10).

"This is about getting our priorities straight," Aubrey Bettencourt, executive director of the CWA, told the paper. "People have softened on high-speed rail because they have found out it is not what they were sold.”

Shasta Lake Dam
© iStock.com / scottsfj40

A group in California is working to get a ballot before voters that would make it possible to stop high speed rail project plans and reallocate the money to state water infrastructure projects.

Specific projects the group would like to see jumpstarted with a shift in funding include Sites Reservoir, Temperance Flat Reservoir, and raising the height of both the Shasta Dam and San Luis Dam.

The group is in the process of collecting signatures to get the measure on the November ballot.

The 'Yes' Campaign

In January, the CWA shared results of a Hoover Institution/Golden State Poll that showed that a majority of California voters would support its ballot measure.

According to the poll, 53 percent of Californians would vote to end HSR and put the unspent funds to water-storage projects if the election was held at the time of the survey; only 31 percent would vote against such a measure, the group said.

“California voters know that the drought has changed our state’s priorities and needs,” said George Runner, proponent and vice-chair, California State Board of Equalization. "When given the choice, they choose water storage over high speed rail.”

As part of the poll, respondents were asked to prioritize policy concerns facing the state. According to the CWA, continuing the state’s HSR project came in last in a list of 21 issues featured in Gov. Jerry Brown’s most recent State of the State speech, with 17 percent support, while addressing the state’s water problems came in first with 77 percent support.

Additionally, 62 percent of poll participants placed water storage construction as their top priority for state governmental spending, more than six times higher than the next most popular priority, highway expansion.

Those Against the Ballot

Not everyone backs the action, however. In a press conference held by opponents March 10, the group noted the public is likely unaware that a section of the ballot seeks to “amend the state constitution to give domestic water use the highest priority and agricultural irrigation the second-highest priority, above environmental needs such as restoring fish and wildlife populations,” the News reported.

The group, called The Committee to Stop the Special Interest Water Grab, includes the California Rice Commission and the Northern California Water Association, in addition to farmers, fisherman, conservationists and others.

Tim Johnson, president of the California Rice Commission, told Water Deeply, an online media resource covering the California water crisis, that part of the group’s objection stems from the fact that HSR funds would be pooled with existing money reserved for water storage projects.

Shasta Lake Reservoir
© iStock.com / slobo

The CWA is working to collect 585,407 valid signatures to qualify for the November ballot. It reportedly has 25 percent of the necessary signatures as they approach the April 26 deadline.

If the $8 billion in remaining HSR money became grouped with the $2.7 billion held in reserve from Proposition 1, a water bond approved by California voters in 2014, a new state agency (the State Water Storage and Groundwater Storage Facilities Authority) would be created to determine how that money would now be spent, he said. This would essentially dismiss the authority Proposition 1 gave the California Water Commission for that purpose.

The CWC has already spent two years developing rules to review water projects, Johnson said, and water groups have put thousands of dollars and man-hours into funding proposals that met those rules for projects like the Sites Reservoir and Temperance Flat Reservoir.

“If this initiative passed, you’ve got a new body and all of that work will have been for nothing,” said Johnson.

Bettencourt disagrees, according to the News. She said the CWA initiative would likely speed up work on the four reservoir projects by providing 50 percent of the funds, which could then be matched by local and federal money. Moreover, she said, the 2014 water bond doesn’t guarantee the reservoirs will be built; rather, the funds could be rerouted toward groundwater storage projects instead.

Where Things Stand

The CWA is working to collect 585,407 valid signatures from registered voters in the state to qualify for the November ballot. According to Bettencourt, it has 25 percent of the necessary signatures as the April 26 deadline approaches.

Having raised $1.2 million to date, the group will be able to pay signature-gatherers, so she believes it will meet the requirements to put the issue before voters.

Meanwhile, the HSR project had gotten the green light to proceed as planned following a state superior court judge’s dismissal of a five-year-old lawsuit intended to halt the project last week.

As reported earlier, the complaint, filed by Kings County and two area farmers, claimed the project could not meet the parameters promised to the voters who approved it in 2008.

In his ruling, however, Sacramento County Superior Court Judge Michael Kenny indicated that it was too early to say whether the California High Speed Rail Authority (CAHSR) would meet or violate the parameters promised in Proposition 1A, the $9.95 billion bond measure that set the project in motion.

   

Tagged categories: Funding; Infrastructure; Locks and dams; Rail; Transportation

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