The California Legislature is asking voters to approve a $10 billion climate bond in November. Farm groups are applauding money in the proposal for water and sustainable agriculture.

Fiscally conservative lawmakers, however, pointed to the state’s spotty track record for spending water bond dollars approved a decade ago. That reputation has stymied the governor and legislative leaders, who must convince federal policymakers the state is able to deliver on matching infrastructure investments in a timely manner.

Proponents see the bond as a worthy investment for building resilience as more potential climate disasters loom on the horizon.

“Climate change is here, folks,” said Senator Dave Min, D-Irvine, who led a joint committee hearing last week to review the final bond agreement lawmakers struck with the administration and interest groups. “Extreme weather events—whether it's flooding, droughts, heat domes with dangerously elevated temperatures, even hurricanes here in California—have become the new normal.”

Sen. Ben Allen, D-Santa Monica, touted the Safe Drinking Water, Wildfire Prevention, Drought Preparedness, and Clean Air Bond Act of 2024 as “the single largest investment in public funding for climate resilience in California history,” if voters approve it. Allen added that it would also be the largest ever made by a single government outside of President Joe Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act.

The bond would provide nearly $4 billion for clean drinking water, groundwater recharge, stormwater projects, water recycling, flood protection and watershed resiliency, among other initiatives.

Kyle Jones, the policy and legal director at the Community Water Center, described a desperate need for more money to ensure safe and affordable drinking water for socially disadvantaged communities. The State Water Resources Control Board has pegged the total investment need at $15.5 billion. After state and federal investments, the funding gap stands at $5.5 billion. The board has spent nearly all the $650 million the Legislature allocated in 2021. Jones pointed out that federal investments under the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law will run out in 2026.

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Ben-Allen-836x627.jpgSen. Ben Allen, D-Santa Monica

“In short, we're facing a fiscal cliff where we no longer have infrastructure resources to move projects forward,” said Jones. “That means for the communities that we’re working in, they could be left without a solution.”

Industry groups were pleased to see farmers would not be left without a solution as well. The bond would allocate $386 million to the California Department of Water Resources to support groundwater banking, groundwater recharge and instream flow projects. A portion of that money would go to LandFlex, a grant program paying farmers to reduce groundwater pumping near communities with vulnerable drinking wells. The Almond Alliance of California and Western United Dairies applauded the funding, reasoning it would improve water quality and the overall supply while accelerating compliance with the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act.

“Placing the climate bond on the ballot will allow voters to determine key investments to improve water availability for dairy farmers,” said WUD President Frank Mendonsa, in a statement following the bond’s passage. “Our partnership with DWR has been instrumental in advancing projects that support water conservation and provide long-term certainty in sustainable agriculture.”

Restore the Delta and other environmental groups often at odds with policymakers over water infrastructure spending appreciated the proposed funding for watershed conservation programs. Yet about 30 of the 180 environmental and social justice groups that initially backed the bond had pulled their support from the final agreement.

During floor debate on the bond, Assemblymember Jasmeet Bains, D-Delano, explained how the pullback was due to a diluted definition of disadvantaged communities that is “fundamentally unjust.” Bains argued it would encompass anyone earning up to $400,000 a year.

“For decades we have neglected the smaller and poor parts of the state,” said Bains, in fiercely opposing the bond. “The wealthy areas take what they want and they leave scraps for the rest of us.”

Republicans were the only other lawmakers to cast dissenting votes. In the committee hearing as well as the subsequent floor debate, Sen. Brian Dahle, R-Bieber, raised alarms over accumulating $25 billion in new debt from the climate bond and two others on the ballot this year, when the state has yet to spend all the money voters approved in the 2014 Proposition 1 water bond for storage projects.

“Here we are 10 years later and we haven't put one drop of water in storage above ground,” said Dahle. “We had record budget surpluses, money committed. We had the federal folks on board. And we still haven't built Sites Reservoir or Temperance Flat.”

He assailed a $5 billion bond for the High-Speed Rail Project, arguing it “does nothing for the climate” and disparaged the state’s track record for constructing large infrastructure projects.

“Californians need to know that there's a lot of debt coming. At the same time, we have budget deficits,” he said. “We're seeing businesses leave California, and somebody's got to pay these bills.”

Dahle went on to argue the state already generates about $5 billion per year for climate spending through the cap-and-trade program, which adds a tax on gas sales, among other fees. Out of $5.6 billion from the program in the current budget, $1.8 billion went to high-speed rail, $943 million to affordable housing and community programs, $470 million to transit and intercity rail, $236 million to low-carbon transit and $130 million to drinking water.

Allen, however, believed that future generations of Californians “will feel good about the fact that we invested it now.” He described the water challenges Central Valley farmers face, suggesting the bond would help to alleviate those problems.

With the concerns over accountability, Allen responded that the California Natural Resources Agency publishes a list of projects on a public website, along with anticipated outcomes, public benefits and support for vulnerable populations.

“All Californians can see precisely where the money is spent,” he said, adding later that 40% of the funds would be invested in disadvantaged and vulnerable communities.

Min added that the state must spend more to address wildfire risks, water conservation and other climate-related issues.

“The overwhelming majority of Californians know and strongly believe that we need to address certain long-term challenges,” said Min. “Because we have failed to invest in infrastructure over the last 50 years in a meaningful way in this state and in this country. But also because climate change is posing massive challenges to our basic way of life.”

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