Much of the current water talk in Sacramento surrounds a new state water bond for the November ballot. Yet as we show in our study Paying for Water in California, most water spending—84 percent—is actually raised locally. While passage rates on local water measures have been fairly high since 1995 (72 percent passing), few make it on the ballot (on average only six per year). This is largely because funding for many critical water services—including stormwater management, flood protection, and ecosystem and watershed improvements—often requires two-thirds of voters to approve, and local officials are reluctant to put such measures on the ballot unless they think they can win. In the June 3 primary election, only two local water measures were proposed. The results illustrate the challenges of funding water services that require direct voter approval.
In Contra Costa County, Orinda’s Road and Storm Drain Repair Bond passed with 75 percent approval. It authorizes the city to issue $20 million in general obligation bonds to fund the restoration and repair of roads and storm drains, plus a property tax increase to pay for the bonds. Broader funding measures like this—which include a water service along with something else—have generally been more successful than exclusively water-focused measures. Local governments seem to have recognized this reality and have increased these kinds of measures in recent years. Unfortunately, measures that fund multiple activities may generate less funding than is needed to fill water service gaps.
The second local water measure, the Lake County Healthy Lake Tax, failed with 64 percent approval (repeating an earlier failed attempt in 2012 that had 63 percent approval). It would have increased the local sales tax by one-half cent for 10 years to pay for the eradication of weeds, algae, and invasive mussels from Clear Lake, the restoration of wetlands, and the improvement of water quality.
As the Lake County example suggests, the two-thirds voter threshold for local special taxes and bonds is a significant obstacle. Orinda twice failed to pass measures in the mid-2000s, despite 64 percent approval. Since 1995, 65 percent of the measures requiring two-thirds approval passed, but 84 percent would have passed at the 50 percent threshold that is required for local general taxes and statewide fiscal measures. We can’t know how many more measures would have been put on the ballot had the voter threshold been lower.
Funding these essential water services through local tax and bond measures is a marked contrast to funding for water supply and sewer services, which are paid for with revenues from monthly customer bills. These services are generally in good fiscal shape because when new funds are needed, providers are required only to give customers the opportunity to protest rate increases.
To help address water funding gaps, California should consider treating flood and stormwater services like water and wastewater. It would also be helpful to treat local special taxes like local general taxes and statewide fiscal ballot measures—requiring a simple majority vote. Of course, this would require constitutional reforms. But without these changes, the state will need to provide much more support to local governments to pay for services that are essential to all Californians.