Reality Check: What Will Prop 1 Water Bond Really Cost?

California’s well-chronicled water crisis has just about everyone, from academics to administrators, brainstorming over a possible solution.

And on Election Day, November 4th, you are presented with one of them: A $7.5 billion water bond proposal, backed by California Governor Jerry Brown.

How much will it cost you and what will the water bond actually accomplish?

Here’s a quick breakdown of these two questions. First, let’s tackle the cost.

According to the non-partisan Legislative Analyst’s Office, the $7.5 billion package actually comes out to around $360 million a year, to be repaid every year over the course of 40 years and directly taken from the state’s general fund budget.

To look at that number more specifically, we divided the $360 million by the number of California taxpayers (roughly 16 million) and came up with a cost of $22.50, per taxpayer, per year. That’s what the Water Bond will cost you.

And how does that stack up in the grand scheme of things? The total cost amounts to about one-third of one percent of California’s General Fund budget. The General Fund, remember, helps the state cover all kinds of essential services, from educational resources to prison reform and health care.

An important point not to be lost in the shuffle is that the taxpayers are not giving the green light for the immediate sale of billions.

“This [proposition] is not as if we’re saying on November 5th the state treasurer is going to go out there and sell $7.5 billion worth of bonds,” explained Carson Bruno, a Hoover Institution fellow and former public finance investment banker. “There will be significant lag time, most likely.”

Bruno points out that the specific water projects have to be first approved, then allocated, and finally triggered by the sale of state bonds.

What the staggered structure creates is something called “level debt service,” where California lawmakers can plan out exactly what the state will be spending- and paying back- on a yearly basis, to provide taxpayers with certainty and a modest payment plan.

Now, what will that money actually go toward?

The short answer is that Prop 1 covers a combination of badly-needed infrastructure projects like dams and reservoirs, watershed protection and restoration efforts and improvements to water supply and flood protection.

Because these projects are generally long-term, they will not likely have much impact on the current drought.

But Dr. Jay Lund, the director of the UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences and one of the state’s leading water experts, says Prop 1 is still packed with plenty of valuable pieces that will make a difference in the here-and-now, too.

“I think it’s a shot in the arm financially for some of the safe drinking water, ecosystem and flood control storm water aspects of the system,” Lund said, adding that these areas can be chronically underfunded.

When asked whether he backs Prop 1, Dr. Lund was a little more nuanced.

“We sort of need this one,” he noted. “But I hope we don’t see a lot more [water bonds], because I think it distracts people from longer-term solutions. In the current situation, this one is probably useful.”

The dams and reservoirs, which provide a place to store water during future wet periods, typically have a “decades-long” construction period, Lund added.

Contact Us