Drought Watch: Regional Solutions
Ellen Hanak, Caitrin Chappelle, Jay Lund June 27, 2014

This is part of a continuing series on the impact of the drought.

Across California, local water agencies are scrambling to apply for new state matching grants authorized under February’s emergency drought legislation. The program aims to accelerate the use of remaining state bond funds for integrated regional water management: activities in which local agencies team up to generate mutual benefits. One example—water suppliers and stormwater agencies that work together to incorporate captured stormwater into local water supplies. Such projects can simultaneously enhance water supply reliability and the quality of water in rivers and coastal areas.

Regional integration has already led to some significant successes, most notably the enhanced ability of urban water suppliers in Southern California and the Bay Area to cope with the current drought. Successes include ramping up water conservation and recycled wastewater storage to increase supplies in storage, and building new connections between local water systems to enable emergency sharing. Outside funds are often needed to jump start these collaborations, both to encourage innovation and to enable some partners—such as stormwater agencies – to participate even if they don’t have the necessary funds.

But as we showed in our study Paying for Water in California, integrated regional water management is on the brink of fiscal failure because state bond funds are running out. Both the legislature and local water agencies have pushed the idea that bonds should continue to provide these dollars, and the major bond proposals under consideration include substantial new funds for this purpose.

But there might be a better way: adding a small statewide surcharge on water use to support regional projects. Local water agencies have often rejected this idea, arguing that if they send money to Sacramento they won’t see it again. But what if the funds go directly to the regions?

Here’s how we think this could work. The legislature (or state voters) would pass the surcharge and set broad criteria for funding eligibility. The funds would be apportioned to the state’s 12 principal hydrologic regions—the large basins that are already used to divvy up bond funds. But rather than having state agencies award the grants, this task would go to new Regional Water Commissions—regional counterparts to the California Water Commission, the state body tasked with awarding matching grants for storage projects under most bond proposals.

Though more politically tricky to pass than a bond, the statewide water surcharge would have numerous advantages. The revenues would be more reliable than bond funds. And relying on Regional Water Commissions to allocate these dollars could encourage broader collaborations than we have seen from the state-sponsored grant program, which has nearly 50 planning regions, often too small to reap the real benefits of integration. Many groundwater basins, for instance, have different boundaries than the current planning regions, and groundwater agencies could use assistance from these regional funds to support better management.

Finally, this statewide option is preferable to creating local or regional surcharges, which can be difficult to raise without approval of two-thirds of local voters. To raise $200 million annually—the amount that’s been available through bonds—a surcharge 7.5 cents/1,000 gallons on urban water bills would suffice. This would increase the average cost of tap water by just 2.8 percent, while creating a valuable incentive fund that helps local water managers enhance the quality and reliability of regional water supplies. As part of a package with a new bond devoted to areas of true statewide need, a statewide water surcharge would help ensure that our water system can support a healthy economy, society, and environment.

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