The Sierra Fund Testifies to the Senate Natural Resources Committee

February 7, 2006

Dear Senator Kuehl & Other Members of The Senate Natural Resources Committee,

Thank you very much for the opportunity to speak to your committee this week regarding Integrated Regional Water Bonds. The Sierra Fund and the Sierra Nevada Alliance are both very supportive of placing a new resource bond on the statewide ballot.

We were active in the formation and passage of the last major bond, Proposition 50 from November 2003, which allocated $30 million to the Sierra Nevada and Cascade region for conservation purposes. We were sponsors of the legislation that created the Sierra Nevada Conservancy, which we hope will bring new public investment to the Sierra region.

We have several comments about the current set of resource bonds under consideration:

1. The natural resource infrastructure of the Sierra Nevada region, source of more than 60% of the state's developed drinking water, is threatened.

The Sierra Nevada and Cascade Ranges are California’s last great reservoir for clean water, blue oak woodlands, working ranches, wilderness and recreation. This 400-mile-long mountain range, covering 31% of the state, has among the fastest rate of population growth in the state.

In 1993 the United States Congress commissioned the University of California to conduct a comprehensive analysis of the Sierra Nevada ecosystem, identifying problems and opportunities. The Sierra Nevada Ecosystem Project report, published in 1996, detailed the many serious environmental challenges facing the region, including loss of critical habitat, almost no protection for blue oak woodlands, and serious water quality problems. 23 out of 24 major watersheds in the Sierra are impaired and polluted, according to state and federal regulators.

2. Only 1% of the water, park and wildlife funds from recent resource bonds have gone to the Sierra Nevada.

Despite this clear documentation of need to invest in cleaning up the watersheds upon which California's economy relies, the region is seriously under-invested in. Propositions 12 and 50 “earmarked” only 1% of their funds for the Sierra. Proposition 40, a $2.6 billion bond measure approved in 2002 to provide conservation resources, earmarked nothing for the Sierra.

The bonds currently under consideration echo this same funding formula. For example, the Governor's water bond establishes in section 82099 specific allocations for resource stewardship and ecosystem restoration projects in various areas of the state, including the Salton Sea. There is no specific allocation for the Sierra anywhere in this bond.

The approach taken by Senator Chesboro in SB 153, and the citizen's water bond initiative that has been submitted, have many advantages over the Governor's proposal, in that they both provide specific allocations for the Sierra. However, both allocate only 1% of their funds to the Sierra.

3. Under-investment in the Sierra Nevada puts critical resources at even more risk.

Despite its massive size, the Sierra Nevada is home to fewer than 10% of the state's residents. The region has overall high poverty rates, dotted with pockets of wealthy retirees or second-home owners. With the decline of the mining industry and jobs in forestry, the area is economically strapped, with counties struggling to keep hospitals and schools open.

One path toward economic development for these areas is to encourage growth and development. Large areas of the Sierra are now home to commuters working in Sacramento, Fresno or Modesto, and more growth is on the way. Some Sierra Counties are projected to grow by 100 – 500 % between 1990 and 2020. Much of this growth will occur in the foothills, with serious impacts on water quality and downstream flooding.

Unfortunately, many Sierran counties have done little or no planning for this growth. Most have no staff with expertise in wildlife habitat, watershed management, or recreation planning. For example, there is only one adopted “Natural Communities Conservation Plan” in the entire range.

Of the 24 major watersheds of the Sierra Nevada, only segments of two of these watersheds (Truckee and Plumas) have Integrated Regional Water Management Plans to coordinate and integrate operations for the benefit of our environment and economies. Investing in this sort of planning for the state's headwaters will have benefits far beyond the region.

The Sierra Nevada Conservancy Working Group, originally convened under Governor Davis, documented the need for more investment in their “Sierra Nevada Resource Investment Needs Assessment.” This report assembled a preliminary list of 100 sample projects — already planned and with strong local support — in the Sierra that would benefit from state investment. These projects, including collaborative planning, easement acquisition, and watershed restoration, would require between $176 million and $255 million, affecting one million acres.

In separate surveys of the Sierra, natural resource consultants have estimated the costs of addressing fire and fuel loads (which have a direct impact on water quality) to be $325 million, and the cost of addressing roads in riparian areas (another major source of contamination) to be $47 million.

4. The Senate Natural Resources & Water Committee should amend the Governor's proposed bond to include the Sierra as a specific hydrologic region with a clear “earmark.”

As the headwaters of the state, clearly the Sierra and Cascade regions need to be prioritized in developing integrated regional water management plans. However, in these rural regions there is a critical lack of financial resources for doing the kind of multi-stakeholder, collaborative planning that is required to create an integrated regional water management plan. By specifying this region as a priority to the state, the area will have a better chance of competing for these funds.

5. The Governor's proposal that only IRWMP's will be eligible for water quality program funding, and that each region be limited to one IRWMP application, needs to be deleted.

As your committee consultant points out in the staff analysis, there are many isolated areas in rural California with serious water quality problems that could be addressed, but there are no IRWMPs in place. In addition, without a master document dividing all parts of the state into designated regions, ad-hoc cobbling into regions will likely leave important areas completely not covered by an IRWMP. This requirement should be removed.

In addition the limitation of only one application to be submitted for each region is confusing, as the “regions” are not defined. Is the Sierra one, six, or 24 regions? Doing one IRWMP for the entire Sierra, involving over 20 counties, over 20 water agencies, and hundreds of other critical agencies, local governments and important stakeholders would be logistically impossible anytime in the next five years and such a massive plan would be of dubious value. In addition, what if an urban water agency or other stakeholder is working with two or three different watersheds in the Sierra? This requirement should be removed.

Proposition 50's Chapter 8, creating the funding for Integrated Regional Water Management Programs, had some excellent outcomes, but there are also difficulties with the program:

· Without a statewide definition of regions, an ad-hoc quilt of efforts will leave important areas without an IRWMP.

· SAWPA took many years to convene and produce their IRWMP, but the current funding for planning is only providing one year to work with diverse stakeholders to produce a plan. The quality of planning and even feasibility of successful efforts is in jeopardy from this unrealistic timeline.

· Current IRWMPs do not require conservation, recreation and other non-profit groups with a strong investment in water planning to be included in the planning. This could result in plans that do not truly address all interests. These plans could be challenged.

· To date, SAWPA is the only region with a tested IRWMP. Recent IRWMPs have not been put to the test of implementation. Consequently, the IRWMP program in our opinion is still being developed and the best models and lessons are still to be discovered.

Given the nascent nature of IRWMPs in the state, it is premature to run all funding for water quality, water supply and habitat improvements through a statewide IRWMP program. We believe these programs show great promise and should be developed over the next few years. Perhaps in five to ten years, when a strong, road-tested program is in place it will be appropriate to funnel all state investment through IRWMPs. However at this stage, this requirement will likely result in everyone rushing to create half-baked new plans without the benefit of models and guidance of what truly works, many areas of the state falling into black-holes of undefined regions, and the state investing in poorly thought out implementation efforts.

6. The final version of a resource bond should include line item funding for the natural resource Conservancies of the state, including the Sierra Nevada Conservancy.

Last year, with your leadership, the Legislature created the new Sierra Nevada Conservancy to address the critical need for resource investment in the “range of light.” This year the Legislature should invest in this new tool as a means of “earmarking” money to the region.

The Sierra Fund respectfully asks that the Senate Natural Resources & Water Committee use the approach utilized by SB 153, which includes specific “earmarks” for Conservancy's. In addition, we ask that the Committee consider increasing the investment that is specifically earmarked to the Sierra to $100 million, as a down payment on the delayed investment in the critical natural resource infrastructure of the Sierra Nevada.

We are very pleased that the Legislature had already begun the process to consider new resource bonds before the Governor unveiled his proposal. We urge you to work closely with the Governor and the Senate to put a ballot measure before the voters that will bring crucial dollars to our magnificent crown of California, the Sierra Nevada.

For the Sierra,

Elizabeth “Izzy” Martin, CEO

The Sierra Fund

Joan Clayburgh, Executive Director

Sierra Nevada Alliance

More News