Before we pay our last respects to the latest statewide water bond, could we at least let the voters put the nail in its coffin?

Gov. Schwarzenegger recently announced he would work with the Legislature to pull Proposition 18 – the $11.1 billion water bond – from the November ballot and instead place the measure on a 2012 ballot. State Senate President Pro Tempore Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) said he would cooperate.

Schwarzenegger and Steinberg have seen the polling numbers that say the bond has very soft support among voters. And they both know that the campaign over Proposition 23 – which would suspend the AB 32 greenhouse gas emissions reduction law, which Schwarzenegger and Steinberg strongly support – will consume money and political capital that the water bond campaign could otherwise use.

All of which is to say that Proposition 18 is doomed and the water bond's only chance is a temporary reprieve. But I question whether it's worth keeping this water bond on life support.

I'm not saying California doesn't need significant investment in water infrastructure and aquatic environments. The needs are huge and the state's water system is ill-prepared for the shrinking Sierra snow pack that scientists predict as a result of climate change. But Proposition 18 does not appear to be the right approach. It's not even the approach the state itself recommends.

Lawmakers and the Schwarzenegger administration put together the water bond as part of last fall's momentous package of water legislation, which, among other things, created a new council to manage the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, established a groundwater monitoring program and mandated reduced per capita water consumption. The water bond was primarily a sop to agricultural interests and water districts for not opposing the rest of the legislation.

Many environmentalists opposed the bond measure because they said it contained pork barrel projects. Many conservatives raised opposition because the bond would add to the state general fund burden.

The second argument resonates, as it would take about $22 billion worth of principle and interest payments to retire the bonds. In addition, as the Pacific Institute points out in a new overview, this would be the first water bond that does not require users of major storage infrastructure to pay back the capital expense over time.  

I'm not so sure about environmentalists' argument because, in fact, the legislation behind the water bond offers only broad language about the types of projects that would be funded: $3 billion for surface water storage, $1 billion for groundwater projects, $1.4 billion for regional water supplies. A better argument might be that we don't know which projects the $11.1 billion would fund.

What we do know is that the water bond would not invest money based on the state's own plan. According to the 2009 California Water Plan, the primary way we will meet increased water demands in the future is by making better use of the water we already have. Urban efficiency measures and increased water recycling are at the top of the water plan's list, as they could provide somewhere between 3 million and 5.5 million acre-feet per year. Groundwater storage might provide an additional 2 million acre-feet, or, because of many uncertainties, it might provide only one-quarter of that amount. Surface storage, at best, would give us an additional 1 million acre-feet.

But the $11.1 billion water bond appears to designate only about 10% of the money for water recycling, and nothing specifically for water efficiency. Shouldn't the largest water bond in state history be very clearly compatible with the state's own water plan?

The water plan reinforces what state and federal water managers have said for years: California needs to pursue every measure to ensure its cities and farms have adequate water in coming decades. We need to be creative and resourceful and – most of all – we need to stop wasting the water the system already delivers. Proposition 18, though, is stuck in the past. Essentially, the bond would build a couple new reservoirs and implement some Delta ecosystem upgrades so that the State Water Project and Central Valley Project may continue extracting water from the Delta at record levels.

How about if we give Proposition 18 a proper burial this November and then start work on the water bond the state really needs?

– Paul Shigley