Proposition 84 promises much-needed water cleanup in the San Fernando Valley, but is still struggling to get traction

By Michael Collins

Los Angeles CityBeat/ValleyBeat — November 2, 2006

Santa Susana Creek leads to Los Angeles River
Santa Susana Creek leads down from Rocketdyne to Los Angeles River.

When they go to the polls November 7, Angelenos will be paying special attention to Proposition 84, the biggest water bond ever floated in the state. Besides shoring up the systems that provides much of Southern California’s water, more than a quarter of the bond’s $5.4 billion expenditures would target water pollution cleanup, including sites in the San Fernando and San Gabriel valleys.

Despite its massive scope and long-overdue funding targets, however, the bond is still struggling to gain traction. According to a poll by the Public Policy Institute of California released October 26, Proposition 84 is favored by only 43 percent of likely voters, making it the bond measure mostly likely to fail.

Proposition 84 promises to safeguard California’s water supply with pollution and contamination controls, provide funds for emergency drinking water supplies, protect natural watersheds and increase river and coastal protections, boost flood control infrastructure, and develop water conservation measures adding 1 million acre-feet to the drinking supply.

The greatest chunk of the bond, $1.5 billion, targets water pollution and would be appreciated in the eastern half of the San Fernando Valley, and most of the San Gabriel Valley, which are riddled with U.S. EPA Superfund priority cleanup sites, befouled by the rocket engine solvent trichloroethylene (TCE) and the rocket fuel oxidizer, perchlorate.

TCE affects the liver, kidneys, immune functions, and fetal development, and can kill in large doses. Perchlorate, which can be smelled in fireworks smoke, has contaminated the groundwater from Simi Valley-adjacent Rocketdyne to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory near Pasadena and, according to the EPA, disrupts thyroid function and affects child development.

The bond measure is meeting resistance from groups wary of its huge price tag and the veritable flood of water bonds that have been proposed in the last decade, but it has two huge backers: both Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and his gubernatorial opponent, state Treasurer Phil Angelides. “Proposition 84 will help preserve California’s incredible coastline and natural resources for generations to come,” Schwarzenegger announced July 21. “This measure also provides essential funding to help ensure our water supply is clean, reliable, and safe, and will help protect our communities from flooding.”

Ten days later, Angelides added his support, once again beaten to the punch on an environmental issue by the governor. “For too long, investments in our environment have been overlooked,” Angelides said, knowing that funding for natural resources makes up less than 1 percent of the overall state budget. “That’s why we need to enact Proposition 84.”

Leading Democrats, over a hundred conservation groups, several dozen water districts as well as an impressive array of cities, counties, and the California Chamber of Commerce have all supported the bond. It would spend $928 million to protect lakes, streams and rivers, with another $800 million mostly going to prevent flooding in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River delta. Even though another measure on the ballot, Proposition 1E, promises $3 billion to the same flood-prone area, the California Department of Water Resources has stated that $13 billion would be needed for the job over the next two decades.

This is, however, the sixth water bond to course its way to voters in the last decade, totaling $11 billion and causing critics to question their efficacy. “Protecting water quality and the oceans and beaches are important responsibilities,” says Ron Nehring, vice chairman of the California Republican Party. “[But] a breakdown of how the borrowed funds in Proposition 84 would be allocated shows how little would actually go to constructing physical infrastructure to serve those important objectives.”

“There’s nothing in the text of the bond measure that provides one dime for water storage, meaning a dam or reservoir,” said Jim Uhler of the Roseville-based National Tax Limitation Committee. “There’s no guarantees in the text of the proposition that guarantees any levees will be built or repaired. They all go for studies, the way it is actually written.”

These criticisms are factual sleight-of-hand, according to former California Assemblyman Richard Katz, who is a consultant to the Proposition 84 campaign. “What they don’t tell you, though, is that there … are no reservoirs that have gone through the engineering and the environmental permits process necessary to build a reservoir,” notes Katz. “There is money, though, in Proposition 84 that will complete some of the studies that would lead to environmental clearance and evaluation of above-ground storage. So they are technically correct but they’re only telling half the story.”

Uhler sees a deeper problem with this bond than the sinkhole he thinks will swallow up the money. A bunch of it, he says, goes to the proponents rather than the infrastructure itself. “There’s a 5 percent management allotment which amounts to approximately $270 million that the end users, the proponents and everybody, can use, let’s say, for qualifying new bond measures,” Uhler says.

The Yes on Prop. 84 campaign counters that the bond is funded entirely from existing revenue sources, will not raise taxes, and would bring federal matching funds into California as well as strict accountability provisions, including yearly independent audits and a citizens’ oversight committee.

Proponents also point out that the state and four land conservancies would get $540 million to protect California’s bays, beaches, and coastal watersheds, which could include places like Runkle Canyon in Simi Valley, which shows signs of radiological pollution. “Land acquisition really isn’t the focus of the bond, but there will be money in it that can be used to clean up the kind of contamination you have in the Santa Susana Mountains from Rocketdyne,” Katz said.

“We’re creating parks and community gardens in low-income and under-served communities in the City of L.A.,” said Tsilah Burman, executive director of the Los Angeles Neighborhood Land Trust, who points out that $580 million would go toward so-called “urban greening” initiatives. “There is so much that happens esidbes the environmental benefits. There’s economic development opportunities. There’s opportunities for after-school classes, for job training, for all sorts of things that really makes these communities more vibrant and safer.”