News analysis by Elizabeth Martin, The Sierra Fund CEO
Earlier this month the state legislature passed a water bond, and the Governor signed this new version replacing the old water bond that had been first placed on the ballot in the fall of 2009. The Secretary of State has assigned the bond item the Number 1 for placement on the November 4, 2014 election ballot.
This measure, authored by Assemblymember Rendon, known as the “Water Quality, Supply, and Infrastructure Improvement Act of 2014” if passed by the voters would authorize the issuance of bonds in the amount of $7.12 billion for projects that meet the criteria of the legislation. This includes funding for a number of controversial projects including some funding for the proposed Sites and Temperance Flats reservoirs.
Despite the intensity of the advocacy around the bill, The Sierra Fund was successful in catching the attention of decision makers about the very crucial issue of mercury contamination in the state that originates in upstream, legacy mines. The bill also includes language that was originally developed by The Sierra Fund over a year ago as part of our “Get the Mercury Out” campaign. This language was presented to many legislators and staff members at hearings, in private meetings, and on the many tours led by The Sierra Fund of abandoned and legacy mine features.
The Sierra Fund’s suggested language can be found in “Chapter 6. Protecting, Rivers, Lakes Streams, Coastal Waters and Watersheds, which includes $1.4 billion for these purposes. One specific directive of this chapter states:
79732. (a) In protecting and restoring California rivers, lakes, streams, and watersheds, the purposes of this chapter are to:
(11) Reduce pollution or contamination of rivers, lakes, streams, or coastal waters, prevent and remediate mercury contamination from legacy mines, and protect or restore natural system functions that contribute to water supply, water quality, or flood management.
The Sierra Fund is widely recognized as the leader that successfully placed this priority item into the legislation. Alf Brandt, staff person for Assemblymember Rendon, noted in an email to The Sierra Fund, “Thanks, Izzy, for your enduring patience with this process. You got in early, which is what made your idea a ‘given’ part of the discussion at the end.”
The bond includes some modest funding for Conservancies, including $25 million for the Sierra Nevada Conservancy as well as $50 million for the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta Conservancy.
In addition, in “Chapter 7. Regional Water Security, Climate, and Drought Preparedness” the bond appropriates $817 million for regional water management planning, including a total of $68 million for projects in the Sacramento and San Joaquin River hydrologic regions. Integrated Regional Water Management groups in the Sierra Nevada will be eligible to compete for these funds.
Finally, the bond includes a lengthy section on storage. In “Chapter 8. Statewide Water System Operational Improvement and Drought Preparedness” the bond includes $2.7 billion of continuously appropriated funds toward “the commission for public benefits associated with water storage projects that improve the operation of the state water system, are cost effective, and provide a net improvement in ecosystem and water quality conditions.” Eligible projects are specifically limited, but do include funding for reservoir reoperation projects and local and regional surface storage projects that improve the operation of water systems in the state and provide public benefits. These projects must provide measurable improvements to the Delta ecosystem or to the tributaries to the Delta. Funds may be expended for ecosystem benefits, water quality improvements, or flood control benefits associated with water storage projects.
The Sierra Fund believes that this language leaves open the possibility of using funding from this section of Proposition #1 (if passed by the voters) for projects such as the one proposed by the Nevada Irrigation District at Combie Reservoir. Their project is seeking funding to test and implement new methods for removing the debris from behind this small dam on the Bear River between Placer and Nevada Counties. The project would not only restore capacity in the reservoir but would also safely remove and dispose of toxic mercury from the fine grain sands and clays held behind the dam that are a result of upstream legacy gold mining activities.
The Sierra Fund Board of Directors will discuss whether take a position on Proposition #1 at their September board meeting.