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If Proposition 3 Passes, 2018 Could Become California's Highest-Funded Year for Water Projects in Decades

A quick guide to Proposition 3, among the more confusing measures on which Californians will vote on November 6th.
A view of the Sacramento–San Joaquin Delta from Sacramento.

A view of the Sacramento–San Joaquin Delta from Sacramento.

California voters will weigh in on 11 statewide ballot propositions on November 6th—a relatively small number for a state where the record number is 45. Still, the measures cover a lot of ground: everything from gas taxes to housing to breaks for emergency workers to daylight savings time to water conservation. There was even a ballot measure (Proposition 9) that could have split California into three states, before the state Supreme Court struck it from the ballot over the summer. Some of the remaining propositions are more straightforward than others, and Proposition 3, which would authorize the state to sell $8.9 billion in bonds to pay for water infrastructure and environmental projects, has left many voters confused.

One reason is that California voters just approved a bond sale for water projects in June: Proposition 68, which authorized the sale of $4 billion for park and water projects. If Proposition 3 passes as well, 2018 will become the state's most-funded year for water projects in decades, second only to 1960, when Californians approved the State Water Project.

So what's different about Proposition 3?

For one thing, it didn't come from the legislature. Gerald Meral, a former water policy adviser to Governor Jerry Brown, wrote the initiative and began collecting signatures last fall to get the measure on the 2018 ballot. Most of the more than $4.8 million raised in support of the measure came from business groups, farmers, and environmental organizations that would directly benefit from its funds. Its major backers include American Pistachio Growers, the California Waterfowl Association, and Western Growers. Critics call this a classic "pay-to-play" scenario. Roughly $750 million is ear-marked for repairs to the federally owned Friant-Kern Canal, for example—which, according to the Sierra Club, was damaged by over-pumping groundwater. Historically, the canal beneficiaries, rather than taxpayers statewide, paid for its maintenance and repairs. "Those who pumped the water and caused the damage should pay to repair the canals," the environmental group said in its opposition statement in July.

Other environmental groups, however, donated more than $1 million to the campaign in support of the proposition, which set aside $940 million for habitat protection.

The proposition's supporters say the funds, which would be handed out to projects via grants, would help the state prepare for "the next inevitable drought and flood," and nearly $1.4 billion would go toward projects that directly benefit disadvantaged communities. Everyone agrees California needs to better protect its water supply in the age of climate change, but opponents of Proposition 3 say the measure is just "throwing money at a problem," and cite concerns about a lack of transparency: Just as the bond provisions were negotiated by its beneficiaries behind closed doors, there would be no legislative oversight of the distribution of the funds—in other words, no way to ensure that the beneficiaries were living up to the promises of their water projects.

Whether or not they see any benefits, California taxpayers will have to pay back the bonds eventually, and Proposition 3 will cost taxpayers $17.3 billion to pay them back in full, plus interest, over the next 40 years.