The Water Bond: What’s Next for the Salinas Valley?

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The barren landscape of Lake San Antonio in south Monterey County in January of this drought-stricken year. (Photo credit: The Salinas Californian)

Article courtesy of  | November 28, 2014 | The Californian | Shared as educational material

On Nov. 4, California voters passed a mammoth $7.5 billion water bond that had been written and re-written for five years.

From a bird’s eye view, its purpose is relatively straightforward: increase the state’s water supply, water access, and watershed protection. But the bond’s impact on the Salinas Valley is far from certain, and a snag in complying with state regulations may make some county projects ineligible.

The lion’s share of the bond, $2.7 billion, will go toward expanding the state’s water storage capacity. Front-runners for this pot of money include the Sites Reservoir near Sacramento and Fresno’s Temperance Flat dam — large-scale water-trapping projects that would not directly influence water supply in our neck of the woods. But in reality, said Norm Groot of the Monterey County Farm Bureau, water that helps some California farmers helps all of them — including the many growers in the Salinas Valley.

“We’re fine with that because it does help overall water supply solutions throughout the state,” said Groot in an interview in late October.

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The bond allocates $43 million directly to the Central Coast hydrologic region, a 40-mile-wide strip of coastline from Santa Cruz to Santa Barbara. Groot said county officials are prepared with a long list of projects that would qualify, including the Salinas River Stream Maintenance Program that recently broke ground on a pilot project near Chualar. “Really, the benefits are for all the residents and citizens of the county, not just the landowners along the river,” Groot said. Other projects would protect sensitive slough ecosystems and recycle wastewater to reduce seawater intrusion.

At least $696 million is available for disadvantaged communities, which would get the added benefit of a reduced or waived cost share below the 50 percent required by the rest of the bond. This provision is especially important for communities like the San Jerardo Cooperative, Alpine Court and San Vicente Road, plagued by nitrate contamination and failing septic systems. Assemblymember Luis Alejo, D-Watsonville, said he’s particularly excited about the opportunities for these communities. “They’ve been trying to get state money for decades,” he said.

One of the biggest Salinas Valley projects on the table is the $48-million to $63-million Interlake Tunnel set to connect Lakes Nacimiento and San Antonio. The two reservoirs fill at different rates, so a 12,000-foot tunnel moving water between them would help increase their combined capacity.

“We’re hoping to get resources for the Interlake Tunnel,” said Robert Johnson of the county Water Resources Agency, though the county is prepared to fund the tunnel by raising water rates for valley farmers.

But the county won’t be eligible for bond money until it complies with CASGEM, a state groundwater monitoring program in effect since 2011. The program requires local agencies to regularly report groundwater levels wells dipping into the state’s water basins.

“It really comes down to sustainability of the water supply,” said Lauren Bisnett of the state Department of Water Resources (DWR). But in Monterey County, many wells here are private, so data is proprietary. Both Bisnett and Johnson confirmed they’re working on finding a solution. But until then, county projects will be ineligible for any state funding — including emergency drought relief.

Despite the unknowns, one thing is certain: no one will receive a dollar for quite some time. The bond is massive, and its oversight has been fragmented among DWR, the California Water Commission, and state Water Resources Control Board, along with others. Each agency will be soliciting proposals, reviewing applications, and awarding its own grants, processes that could take months to years to implement.

The water bond will address many problems, but no panacea exists in a state with a limited water supply and an ever-increasing population. And with an undefined timeline, it won’t provide any relief from the current drought. Only time will tell if 67.2 percent of voters made the right choice.

Follow Kerry Klein on Twitter @eineKleineKerry

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