Sunday, May 2, 2010

Water over the dam?

In six months, Californians will vote on one of the biggest public water bonds in the nation's history.

However, this week, in central California - the election is now.

Hundreds of the state's water leaders will gather in Monterey for the semi-annual conference of the Association of California Water Agencies. ACWA represents the largest percentage of water interests (hundreds of private water companies, groundwater groups and a few others are generally not members of ACWA).

The bond will be the talk of this conference. It will be the rallying cry. Behind most presentations will be THE BOND.

Although some bond election efforts began months ago (and another push naturally starts after the June primary is done), the REALLY BIG push begins this week once the state's major water players leave Monterey, armed with inspiration, key messages and, hopefully, a better sense of how the campaign will be waged.

Gauging from prior gatherings, big news may come out of the conference. But, I predict, an end to the drought won't be declared here - nor anywhere else in 2010. (I'll explain "why" further down).

This "non-news" or silence could be the loudest and most deciding factor in the November election, and will be important for state water leaders to understand during all the speeches in Monterey this week.

Snow has built up on the Sierra Mountains, putting pressure on the Schwarzenegger administration to declare an end to the state's three-year drought.

Of course, since this is a blog about public relations, it is interesting to see how multiple sides are waging their battles over the $11+ billion bond to improve the state's water supplies. If you are keeping track (and more of that here), below are some of the tactics and arguments in favor or opposed:
  • Some unions oppose because debt payments on the bond will cut into the states general fund and, therefore, affect the size of future state wage increases and benefits;

  • A leading farm organization opposes because it is trying to leverage some guarantees - totally unrelated to water - from the state Legislature in exchange for a support position;

  • Many environmental groups and some politicians allege the bond is filled with pork projects (CA Legislature admits this) and will only lead to further environmental damage (dams?) without securing more water conservation (read: growth continues in CA).
From an "advantage" standpoint, declaring an end to the drought would likely have significant implications on the success of the bond's passage. As someone directly involved in one (failed) state initiative and behind the scenes in a few others, and as someone whose career involves understanding public sentiment, having a hammer like a "drought" hanging over one's head is extremely helpful in trying to win favor for a water bond. It also helps to have a drought-themed message to neutralize the bond has too much pork drumbeat. If the drought is declared over, then bond proponents will be left with using a bag full of less-dramatic, less-compelling and certainly less romantic arguments and messages.

The last water bond in 2006 won because proponents used "protecting nature," "clean water" and "saving our coastlines" as key message points. Who wouldn't love these images floating around in the minds of the electorate as they head to the polls? What's more: Writers of previous initiatives secured endorsements from environmental groups, like The Nature Conservancy, because the bond measures included features that they wanted. And, there were not really any lawmakers who could vocalize opposition to a point of being noticed.

Yet, this year, environmentalists and a few lawmakers are taking various shots at the November water bond, and it's getting some play in the news media. The good news for supporters is that most of these attacks are technical in nature. They are arguing the finer points of CA's water complex system - and history. Complexity and detail are not going to win elections because they only confuse and alienate voters (and the news media). Old battles are not to be fought here, lads.

What will decide the bond are more traditional factors, such as:

  • Will the economy be upbeat? In a good economy, voters feel less reluctant to vote against money-related ballot measures. Currently, we're trending to better times in November;

  • Endorsements. Can opponents join forces and have their arguments heard in a unified voice over the roar of a well-funded proponent campaign? Not likely;

  • Turnout. This is a mostly GOP-supported bond in a year with the governorship at stake. If a GOP candidate wins for governor, it's likely the bond will do well. Although we have leading Dems supporting this bond, it's still a partisan election;

  • Local. The battle for this bond will be waged in the backyards of every water agency and state legislative district. If proponents do a good job explaining how this bond will benefit "my" community, it will pass, and;

  • Money. The last water bond passed with more than $30 million in outreach and advertising. My guess: the November water bond will need at least a $50 million election budget to win. (Interesting to watch: The "Save Our Water" campaign is ramping up again this year. It wasn't around in the last water bond election. It is modestly funded. Will these water conservation message have an influence on the bond?).
Now, before someone reads this column and says, "You see, those PR folks want to keep the drought around just to win the water bond," let me offer some science and other factors about why the drought won't be over anytime soon (at least not in 2010):

  • Although we have a large snowpack, the DWR already is predicting that a large amount of runoff will be absorbed back into a very dry watershed even before it reaches rivers and other surface water sources that feed our state system. So, 140+ percent of snowpack won't translate into 140+ percent of water into the state system;

  • The snowpack will be enough to give us a normal supply year, but not enough to refill our depleted reservoirs. (See "court restrictions" below);

  • One good year does not end a drought. This is the case in the upper Colorado River watershed, which is still experiencing an extended drought in spite of two "above-average" years of rainfall, and;

  • Although not part of the typical drought equation, court orders restricting water flows out of the Delta will limit supplies to cities and farms regardless of how much snow rests in the Sierras. Declaring a drought over with court orders still in place will create serious confusion in this important election year.

See you in Monterey and on the campaign trail.


jerry said...

The author says that most of the criticisms of the bond are "technical". I guess one person's "technical" are another person's substantive policy and fiscal problems. There are many more reasons to vote against the bond. Here are a few: 1. The debt service on the bond will reach $800 million per year out of the General Fund and that will come right out of education, law enforcement, social services, etc. 2. The so-called "water crisis" is a manufactured crisis by corporate agricultural interests who want the taxpayer to pay for more economically and environmentally disastrous dams. 3. There are $8 billion worth of water bonds (Props 84 and 1E) previously approved still unsold. 4. There is close to $2 billion in pure pork (handed out to legislators to get their vote to put this turkey on the ballot) in the bond. 5. $3 Billion is allocated for new storage facilities with a limited list of alternatives including new dams. The decision maker on what facilities will get built is the California Water Commission. That commission has been defunct for years and has no current members. Schwarzenegger has the power to appoint all the members at any time. It is no secret that he has a fondness for big dams and is looking for a legacy ---- maybe a new dam named after him. 6. The bond (¶79749) provides that if a new dam is funded by the Water Commission the funds may go to an entity that includes “nongovernmental partners”. That is legislative lingo for privatization of the State Water Project; a very bad idea!! 7. The bond potentially provides as much as $4.5 Billion for for new storage projects (i.e. dams) but only a maximum of $2 Billion for soft path measures such as conservation and recycling. That has it backwards. 8. The bond allocates billions to fixing the problems in the Delta. In part, those problems were caused by diversions to water users. Those users should share in the costs of the "fix". See and join the fight against the bond.

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Anonymous said...

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