State Issues

How Jerry Brown will stick us with the cost of his tunnels

Campaign sign along Highway 160 in the Delta protests the state’s plan to overhaul the estuary by piping water underground. Gov. Gavin Newsom wants to downsize the project to a single tunnel.
Campaign sign along Highway 160 in the Delta protests the state’s plan to overhaul the estuary by piping water underground. Gov. Gavin Newsom wants to downsize the project to a single tunnel. Bee file

If you thought the bullet train was a boondoggle, wait until you hear what’s next. California is building a time machine.

That’s how Gov. Jerry Brown and the Department of Water Resources intend to pay part of the cost of the $17 billion twin-tunnel project, aka, WaterFix. They have to get voters to approve the costly undertaking so property taxes can be raised to pay for it. But there’s a catch: Voters have to approve it in 1960.

That’s because Proposition 13 was passed in 1978, when voters were so outraged over skyrocketing property taxes that they took control from the Legislature and cut property tax rates statewide to 1 percent. However, Prop. 13 allowed for property tax rates to be higher than 1 percent if the money is needed to pay for debt the voters approved in prior years (i.e., prior to 1978).

Back in 960, voters approved bond debt to pay for the State Water Project. There’s still a charge for the State Water Project on many property tax bills today.

So the question that teams of government boondogglers are wrestling with is how to make the proposed WaterFix project go back in time to 1960. Then they can say voters already approved the debt for building the twin tunnels, and property taxes can be raised to pay the WaterFix debt.

To do this, they’re redefining WaterFix as part of the State Water Project.

Under state law, specifically Water Code 147.5, the Department of Water Resources can finalize a long-term water contract 60 days after the Joint Legislative Budget Committee holds an informational hearing. The committee doesn’t even have to vote.

The Legislature doesn’t have to vote. All that’s needed is the hearing.

The hearing is set for Aug. 14.

Sixty days later, the new long-term contract will be finalized, extending the term through 2085 and setting the stage for WaterFix debt to be issued. The financing will be committed before the next governor takes office.

The full details of how much WaterFix will cost and who will pay are still to be determined, and the DWR says more amendments to the contract will be finalized in the future, after CEQA requirements are met.

For what it will cost, you’d think the WaterFix project would solve California’s water problems. It won’t.

WaterFix doesn’t guarantee one drop of additional water. It’s an elaborate workaround for the environmental restrictions on pumping water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta south through two giant tunnels.

But just as pumping from the Delta has been throttled by lawsuits over species protection, the water from WaterFix could be shut down the same way. Southern Californians could end up with all the debt and none of the water for years to come.

It gets worse. If the water agencies who promise to fund the WaterFix can’t make payments to the “State Water Project,” they are required to raise property taxes in their service areas to come up with the extra money. That’s how you’ll end up paying for the boondoggle known as WaterFix. Your rates will go up, and if that’s not enough, your property taxes will go up. And you’ll still have to pay for other projects to increase the water supply, too.

The only way to stop this insanity is to postpone the Joint Legislative Budget Committee Hearing. Demand it never happens. Then set the time machine to a future ... when there’s a new governor.”

Susan Shelley is a columnist for the Orange County Register. Email Susan@SusanShelley.com.

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