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© California High-Speed Rail Authority

Water and transportation rank high on the list of resources and services Californians can’t do without. Both are at the center of a debate that pits residential water use and agribusiness against the environment.

The bullet train that would connect Los Angeles to San Francisco reaching speeds of 220 miles per hour has polarized voters since it broke ground in 2012. Touted by environmentalists and Governor Jerry Brown as a cleaner alternative to traditional transportation, it has been plagued by two-year delays and a ballooning budget that stands at $64 billion, nearly double its $33 billion initial estimate. Many question whether those numbers outweigh the train’s environmental benefits.

Computer-generated image of the proposed high-speed train for use in California. (Photo Credit: California High-Speed Rail Authority)

Computer-generated image of the proposed high-speed train for use in California. (Photo Credit: California High-Speed Rail Authority)

Capitalizing on the sway in public opinion is an initiative created by the California Water Alliance and backed by Senator Bob Huff (R-San Dimas) and state Board of Equalization Member George Runner that would divert $8 billion in remaining funds from the rail, along with $2.7 billion in bonds from Proposition 1, to create new infrastructure for water storage. The reserves would be used to relieve drought conditions in the foreseeable future and to support agricultural goals amid mandatory cutbacks. 

The picture was a familiar one in 2008, when Central Valley farmers led the opposition against project leaders who failed to articulate the rail’s potential impact on their agricultural lifestyle. That protective spirit is at the crux of their support for a measure that purports to rewrite the state’s water laws. If passed, the measure would constitutionally amend California’s water code and prioritize agribusiness over the environment in an unprecedented way.

A Campaign Suspended

Those plans are on hold as of March 25, following the suspension of the campaign that was supposed to garner 585,407 signatures to qualify for the 2016 ballot. The proposal was backed by close to two million in campaign dollars, a bulk of it coming from Central San Joaquin Valley farmers.

Now that the money well has gone dry, supporters will have to find new funding if they hope to make it on the ballot in 2018. That is unlikely to happen, according to democratic campaign strategist Steven Maviglio, who calls the ballot measure “dead on arrival.” For now, plans for the high-speed rail will proceed as scheduled despite protestation.

“The high speed rail is on life support,” says California Water Alliance representative Hector Barajas. And supporters of the proposal hope it will soon flat line. He defends the measure’s potential to alleviate drought in water starved urban communities where the absence of potable water is an inconvenient truth.

A striking visualization of how the drought has impacted California. These images show the water level in the Oroville Dam reservoir, north of Sacramento, from 2011 and 2014. (Photo Credit: California Department of Water Resources)

A striking visualization of how the drought has impacted California. These images show the water level in the Oroville Dam reservoir, north of Sacramento, from 2011 and 2014. (Photo Credit: California Department of Water Resources)

“If we’re not growing our own water supply then we are outsourcing it to other countries. Adding more buckets to our water system adds to our ability to protect our farmers, and protect our communities in California that haven’t had running water in a year and a half to two years.” Barajas is referring to East Porterville, three hours north of Los Angeles, where ground water storage facilities lack connection to a main water system and the supply has dried up.

Doug Obegi of the Natural Resources Defense Council notes that prior to the drought, nitrate poisoning from agricultural runoff had already rendered water supplies in disadvantaged communities like East Porterville unusable. The deficit there indicates a larger problem of water mismanagement. The culprit is an outdated storage system ill-equipped to weigh residential needs against agricultural demands and ensure protections for the environment.

Proposition 1 and Beyond

If the train vs. dam initiative is resurrected, voters will have the chance to decide whether pressing drought conditions warrant a revision of the state’s constitution, but by that time it could be too late. The measure may stand a fighting chance supposing the drought worsens, but both the high-speed rail and water storage projects currently in review for grant funding under Prop 1 will be underway by 2018.

Rice farmers, fisherman and environmentalists led the effort to get the legislature on board with the bipartisan Water Bond Act in 2014. “We supported Prop 1 because it really was a sea change in how we build new storage projects,” Obegi says, calling it the first attempt to manage ground water on a statewide level.

The California Central Valley as seen from 20,000 feet. (Image Credit: WikiMedia Commons)

The California Central Valley as seen from 20,000 feet. (Image Credit: WikiMedia Commons)

The bullet train initiative would have diverted $2.7 billion in bonds from Prop 1 to the construction of reservoirs on the San Joaquin River and Colusa County, as well as the fortification of existing dams. Central Valley farmers would have had first priority access to the water sources pending approval by a newly appointed water authority.

By Obegi’s account, the majority of reservoirs, dams and water banks that make up California’s water storage infrastructure benefit water supply but devastate the environment. New storage projects under the Bond Act will be the first of their kind to require environmental accountability.

Obegi is counting on Prop 1 as well as the Sustainable Ground Water Management Act (SGMA) to address the problem of ground water mismanagement absolutely. The long-term goal, he says, is to safeguard our existing ground water in times of drought and further ensure that we conserve as much of it as possible in wetter times.

A Better Solution

Both Obegi and the director of external affairs and policy for the Nature Conservancy, Jay Ziegler, think Gov. Brown’s May 9th executive order to continue conservation efforts and tackle water storage projects at the source sets the right tone. The alternative of treating symptoms of drought as they arise has proven insufficient and environmentally disastrous thus far.

Ziegler calls the dam vs. train initiative “a simplistic, draconian effort that would turn California water law priorities upside down and directly erase water from the environment.” Despite the measure’s delay, he doesn’t think California’s water supply is near out of the woods. Threat still exists to the streams, rivers and few endangered species of salmon that remain in the Sacramento dam, and protections are needed to safeguard “the natural landscape of California, why 39 million of us have decided to live here.”

Folsom Dam and Lake, on the American River, above Folsom, California, March 2004. (Photo Credit: Michael Nevins / United States Army Corps of Engineers.)

Folsom Dam and Lake, on the American River, above Folsom, California, March 2004. (Photo Credit: Michael Nevins / United States Army Corps of Engineers.)

Instead, he says that targeting environmental degradation while addressing water quality and access for disadvantaged communities will require a more comprehensive approach than the one we have in place currently.

“We need a smarter, bigger strategy that does not come at the expense of disadvantaged communities that don’t have water today, it needs to be part of a much larger statewide strategy that all of us are actively participating in,” says Ziegler.

“There is no shortcut.”

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