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Drought Watch: Lessons from Kansas
Ellen Hanak, David Mitchell June 05, 2014
This is part of a continuing series on the impact of the drought.

As summer approaches, signs of the drought are intensifying, with early season wildfires, new reductions in supplies from California’s depleted rivers, and many farmers scrambling for appointments with well drillers to access more groundwater. In Sacramento, there is also a heightened sense of urgency regarding money for the water system, as the June 26th deadline looms for legislative action on a new bond for the November 2014 ballot. The drought has drawn policymaker attention to water system investments, and it has raised hopes that the public will be willing to support new borrowing. While this is good news for California’s water system, the focus on bonds is a missed opportunity to go bigger.

As we showed in our March 2014 study, Paying for Water in California, a new bond can at best provide about $1 billion per year in new funds for water. So even if a bond passes in November, California will still be facing an annual funding gap of $1– $2 billion to meet critical needs. Bonds alone can’t do the job, and now’s the time—during, not after the drought—to consider a broader package of solutions.

One important place to look for additional funds is new state fees and taxes dedicated to underfunded areas like safe drinking water, flood protection, and healthy watersheds. And here’s where Kansas comes in: Since 1989, Kansas has had a small surcharge on urban water use (6 cents/1,000 gallons) to help fund projects of statewide importance. A small surcharge on agricultural chemicals also goes into this fund, as do fines charged to water polluters. And Kansas is not alone. Missouri and New Jersey both have surcharges on urban water use (1 cent/1,000 gallons) to support safe drinking water programs. Maryland, whose environmental problems in the Chesapeake Bay rival those of California’s Delta, has small parcel taxes to fund stormwater control. Minnesota uses a small increment on the state sales tax (0.12 cents/dollar) to support healthy watersheds.

For perspective, the typical price of tap water in California is $2.67/1,000 gallons, so a 6 cent surcharge (as in Kansas) would raise this to $2.73/1,000 gallons, an increase of just 2.2 percent. And the typical California sales tax is 8.5 cents/dollar, so a 0.12 cents/dollar surcharge (as in Minnesota) would raise this to 8.62 cents/dollar, an increase of just 1.4 percent. And these small surcharges would bring in some badly needed cash: About $175 million/year for a Kansas-style urban water fee, and about $575 million/year for a Minnesota-style sales tax increment.

These surcharges could be passed by California’s legislature (by a simple majority or two-thirds vote of both houses, depending on whether they qualify as regulatory fees or taxes) and then signed into law by the governor. Or they could be put before voters alongside a new bond. Of course, the politics of new fees and taxes are trickier than those of new state bonds, for which the bill comes later, when most current officeholders will be termed out. But for the sake of a healthy and secure economy, society, and environment, the time for bold action is now. California will have plenty of company.

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