Despite water bond vote, California drought relief elusive

An empty boat dock sits on the dry lakebed of Folsom Lake on March 20, 2014 in El Dorado Hills, California.
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An empty boat dock sits on the dry lakebed of Folsom Lake on March 20, 2014 in El Dorado Hills, California.

Voters in California on Tuesday easily approved a $7.2 billion bond initiative to fund various state water projects.

The measure includes funding for new water storage projects, water recycling efforts, storm water recovery, building of new dams and efforts to provide safe drinking water for those in need.

But relief from the severe drought—now heading into its fourth year—won't be so easy to come by, analysts admit.

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"I think this is the beginning of a great new day and an opportunity to change our relationship with water resources," said Andrew Fahlund, deputy director of the California Water Foundation, a privately funded group that works on new approaches to water management.

"However, we know this won't provide immediate relief from the drought," Fahlund said. "Even under the best of circumstances some projects could take a decade."

Where the money goes

The measure authorizes $7.1 billion in new state borrowing, while using around $425 million from previous bonds.

Estimates put the final cost of the proposition to taxpayers at $14.4 billion over the next 40 years, as revenue from the state's water users also will be collected to fund new storage projects.

Read MoreUnsafe water only adds to California drought misery

The sale of the water bonds will go to support projects including:

  • New water storage projects for surface and groundwater—$2.7 billion
  • Water recycling—$725 million
  • Regional water security, climate and drought preparedness—$810 million
  • Safe drinking water—$520 million
  • Streams and watershed protection and restoration—$1.495 billion
  • Flood control—$395 million
  • Groundwater cleanup and sustainability—$900 million

The measure drew wide support from the business community, environmental groups and farmers.

The California Farm Bureau considers the effort to increase water storage a key part of the measure, said Dave Kranz, communications director of the group.

"This is the most significant state investment in that area in more than 30 years," he said.

"We need the new storage to add flexibility to a water system that has been stretched thin by population growth and reallocation of water," Krantz contended.

Texas water bond

California isn't the only state to pass a bond measure to beef up water management efforts in a drought.

Voters in Texas— which is going through a tough drought of its own, along with other states in the Southwest—approved a $2 billion water fund in 2013.

Proposition 6 was an amendment to the Texas state constitution, and the results show how concerned people have become as the drought has worsened, said Martin Rochelle, chair of the water practice group at the Lloyd Gosselink law firm in Austin, Texas.

"We had another water bond proposition that barely passed four years ago," explained Rochelle. "But the one in 2013 passed by 76 percent, showing there are fears in the state about the drought."

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Rochelle said that like the California bond measure, much of what the Texas proposition will do for drought relief is in the future, rather than now—with funding for projects beginning in 2015.

And both state measures share some controversies over which new water projects get approved. A state board and then a separate commission in Texas will have to OK projects.

"Little towns could be competing against bigger cities here in Texas for approval on projects," said Rochelle. "There are fears the big dogs will get all the money."

In California, the state's water commission, whose nine members are appointed by the governor, will decide which groundwater and surface water projects get funded.

"Yes, there could be some conflict here in California over projects," said Fahlund of the California Water Foundation. "It's naive to think otherwise."

Grim forecast

California's drought has forced the state to take actions previously unheard of.

Just this September, the state legislature approved and Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law new groundwater rules, the first in the state's history. Groundwater supplies have been drying up as more water surface supplies have vanished.

While analysts agree that the bond issue and the groundwater laws are good starting points, what's really needed is more rain and lots of it.

There had been hope for heavy rains this winter. The weather condition known as El Nino was expected to bring strong bouts of moisture to California.

But predictions now are that even if El Nino does occur, it is expected to be weak with little rainfall.

Read MoreIf California doesn't get rain this winter ...

And it couldn't come at a worst time.

This past year was the fourth-driest year ever for California based on rainfall and water runoff measurements. It got only around 60 percent of the yearly average precipitation.

While most of the state's reservoirs are at nearly 59 percent capacity, water supplies in the three largest reservoirs are at only about 30 percent of capacity.

Adding more misery is that water conservation efforts in the Golden State may have reached a dropping off point.

According to the most recent figures from the California State Water Resources Control Board, water conservation in September was down 1.3 percentage points from August in the state.

"We don't know if this drought will last another year or five," said the California Water Foundation's Fahlund. "The bond is a key piece but not the only piece. We've got to do more to sustain our water supply."