Over the holidays, I had a chance to get out my crystal ball and look at water issues for the year ahead. Of course, it’s impossible to know exactly what will happen, but here are my predictions about the water-related topics to watch 2018:
The return of the water tax proposal
Last summer, an 11th-hour effort emerged in the Legislature to impose – for the first time – a new statewide tax on residential and business water bills. The “water tax” was part of a bill that aims to improve access to safe drinking water for disadvantaged communities. While the Water Authority supports access to safe drinking water for disadvantaged communities, there are better ways to achieve that goal. Taxing water customers for something so essential is not right, and doing so will increase the likelihood of additional types of taxes on water in coming years. Thanks in part to vigorous opposition across San Diego County and other regions of the state, the proposed legislation stalled in 2017, but it’s likely emerge again this year.
Statewide snow and rainfall
The 2018 water year started out very dry in San Diego County, with above-average temperatures and minimal rain from October through mid-December. The snowpack in the Colorado River Basin also was well below average for the first two months of the water year, though conditions were better in the Sierra Nevada. Statewide interest quickly focused on whether the wet winter of 2016-17 was an aberration in an otherwise dry long-term cycle – and that question will be front and center as this winter unfolds. We’ll know the answer by April 1, which marks the traditional end of California’s precipitation season.
Water supply security for County
Regardless of rain and snow levels, the San Diego region will again have sufficient water supplies due to regional investments of $3.5 billion over the past three decades in drought-resilient supplies and infrastructure upgrades. Those investments, coupled with continued water-use efficiency by homes and businesses across the region, ensure long-term supply reliability.
Bay-Delta tunnels project
Decisions by the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California and other State Water Contractors in 2017 provided momentum for Gov. Jerry Brown’s WaterFix plan to build twin tunnels carrying fresh water under the Sacramento-San Joaquin Bay-Delta. But the $17 billion project also suffered significant setbacks, including some unflattering audits and the refusal to pay by a major agricultural water district, prompting MWD leaders to suggest building the project in phases. It’s unclear how this proposal will play out during Brown’s final year as governor, but whatever happens will have cost and water supply implications for water ratepayers in San Diego County.
State bond funding for water projects
California voters will consider a $4 billion general obligation bond in June – the California Drought, Water, Parks, Climate, Coastal Protection, and Outdoor Access for All Act of 2018. It resulted from passage of Senate Bill 5 in 2017, when the Water Authority worked tirelessly to secure $200 million in the legislation for Salton Sea restoration. If the bond passes, funding for the Salton Sea will provide environmental benefits and help protect vital water transfers from the Imperial Valley to San Diego County. In addition, a proposed $8.9 billion water and resources bond measure is being circulated for signatures to qualify for the November 2018 ballot. That measure, if approved, would authorize $200 million in additional funding for Salton Sea restoration.
To be sure, there are many other issues the Water Authority is tracking on behalf of the region’s ratepayers: how MWD sets its rates for 2019; the future of a potential energy storage project in East County that is under consideration by the Water Authority and its partner, the City of San Diego; and the development of state water-use regulations, to list a few. For the latest on regional water issues anytime, go to sdcwa.org.
Mark Muir chairs the Board of Directors of the San Diego County Water Authority.