A multi-year drought, a changing climate and a growing population might have created the perfect opportunity for the state to pass a $7.5 billion water bond slated for the ballot next month. It’s a measure touted by supporters as a much-needed investment in California’s water supply, which must serve 38 million residents and large-scale agriculture while providing flows and habitat for flora and fauna that have been decimated by decades of poor water management.

Opponents, however, cast Proposition 1 as a pork-laden measure that allocates $2.7 billion for water storage projects that could lead to environmentally destructive dams for Central Valley agriculture and fund other projects that don’t immediately address the ongoing drought.

Prop 1, the ballot measure that would enact the Water Quality, Supply and Infrastructure Improvement Act of 2014 if approved by a majority of voters, provides funding for improvements to the state’s water supply, watershed protection and restoration. The initiative follows up on a recent $11 billion bond that never made it to a vote because it was too unpopular; supporters call the $7.5 billion bond a trimmed version. 

The measure has drawn support from major environmental groups like the National Resources Defense Council and the Audubon Society as well as the California Farm Bureau Federation. Almost every state legislator approved it in August. (Two voted against it.) Recent polls show a majority of voters in favor, though turnout in a midterm election with a virtually guaranteed outcome in the governor’s race will be low.

“The N.R.D.C., American Rivers [Conservation Council], the Nature Conservancy, Audubon—all the mainstream environmental groups are supporting it,” said Jerry Meral, the director of the Natural Heritage Institute’s California Water Program and the former deputy director of the state’s Natural Resources Agency. “There is funding for water storage, but that doesn’t [necessarily] mean dams.”

When he worked for the state, Mr. Meral, an Inverness resident, headed the creation of the Bay Delta Conservation Plan, a contentious plan to built two tunnels at the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. That plan has been sharply criticized by the N.R.D.C., which praised Prop 1 for remaining “neutral” on the delta plan. 

But Prop 1 opponents believe new dams could pave the way for the tunnels. The state announced last month that, after assessing public comments on the delta plan—including sharp critiques from the United States Environmental Protection Agency—it would draft a new environmental impact statement and hold a new round of public comment.

Wide support for Prop 1 comes in part from a belief that California needs to take action to improve the management of its water, a resource often at the center of fierce battles between many of the groups now coming together to call for the measure’s passage. But the bipartisanship also stems from compromises made to appease multiple political parties and lobbies; the language of the bill leaves open the question of how exactly the money will be spent, particularly when it comes to water storage.

A major point of contention for opponents is the $2.7 billion allocated for water storage projects, which can be used for dams and surface storage as well as groundwater storage and aquifer

In addition to the No on Prop 1 campaign, that allocation has spurred opposition from the Pacific Coast Federation of Fisherman’s Association, the Center for Biological Diversity and Restore the Delta, a nonprofit that advocates for the restoration of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Bay Delta, an area that provides massive amounts of water to California’s urban populations and Central Valley agriculture, which has caused fisheries to suffer drastic population crashes. 

And despite the N.R.D.C.’s support and the $1.5 billion Prop 1 allocates for watershed protection and restoration, the Sierra Club’s California chapter decided to remain neutral on the bond because of fears that it could be spent on the construction of new dams.

Dams and impacts

“We decided to take a neutral position because it’s such a mixed bag,” said Sonia Diermayer, the water committee co-chair for the club’s Bay Area chapter. “The Sierra Club has for years opposed and continues to have a strong opposition to the concept of three of the dam projects mentioned as possible candidates for funding: the Sites Reservoir, the Temperance Flats Dam and the raising of Shasta [Dam].” Though she said it was likely the dams would never be made because of their high cost, she also worried about big agricultural operators pushing for their construction.

But Doug Obegi, a staff attorney for the N.R.D.C., argued at a Marin Conservation League breakfast last week that Californians should vote for Prop 1 because of the “major investments” the bond provides for watershed restoration, water recycling, habitat restoration and clean drinking water, to which over a million state residents don’t have access.

The N.R.D.C., he said, is no friend to dams. He admitted that the bond would probably result in some surface storage, but he argued that the economics were against the ultimate construction of the huge dams most feared by environmentalists. 

“Is this the language I would have written?…No,” he said. But, he added later, “We live to fight another day on individual dams.”

Still, the prospect of such dams is in large part what garnered support for the measure from Republicans in the legislature. The Orange County Register’s editorial board, reflecting some of the more conservative thinking on the bond, supports passage despite the board’s opposition to those very conservation efforts lauded by Mr. Obegi. The paper would have liked “more spent on much-needed water storage and less spent on pet environmental projects and programs as fish and wildlife habitat protection and land purchases for conservation purposes.”

The language of the measure requires that the bond only fund the “public benefit” the dams could provide—defined as ecosystem improvements, water quality improvements in the delta or other river systems, flood control, emergency response and recreation. The bond can at most fund 50 percent of the cost of a project and half the public benefit must always go toward ecosystem restoration. But opponents say the public money for dams would still be spent on projects that largely benefit private agricultural operators.

“I think some people believe that money is secretly earmarked for surface storage dams, but I don’t read it that way. I think it would be hard for the couple of surface storage projects to meet the restrictions in the bond. But clearly other people don’t believe that,” said Peter Gleick, the president of the Pacific Institute, an Oakland-based research nonprofit focused on water and climate change issues. 

One of those skeptics is Zeke Grader, the president of the Pacific Coat Federation of Fisherman’s Associations. “I think [the N.R.D.C. is] being a little bit gullible,” he said. Though most of the bond funding will be allocated to state agencies like the Department of Fish and Wildlife or the Department of Water Resources, the $2.7 billion for storage will be distributed by the California Water Commission, a nine-member body appointed by the governor—a fact Mr. Grader says will make it harder to intervene.

“If this bond passes, we will work to stop those [dams]…but Republican legislators weren’t gonna vote for something that the N.R.D.C. could just stop,” he said. “To me, it’s a little bit Pollyannaish.”

Regardless of how the water is stored, Governor Jerry Brown has said dwindling snowpack as a result of climate change necessitates more water storage projects in the state.

But at the Marin Conservation League’s breakfast, Barbara Barrigan-Parilla, the executive director of Restore the Delta and the leader of the No on Prop 1 campaign, said new dams would yield little water, especially relative to their cost. (She also scoffed at the idea of their public benefit. “Dams for fish is ludicrous,” she said, a phrase she has also used in editorials slamming the bond.)

Feasibility studies for Temperance Flat Dam, in Fresno and Madera Counties, and for raising Shasta Dam would together bring an extra roughly 200,000 acre feet of water per year but would likely cost over $3 billion. By comparison, Ms. Barrigan-Parilla said that according to the E.P.A., the state loses hundreds of thousands of acre-feet of water a year because of subpar infrastructure like leaky pipes. And Los Angeles County, for example, has managed to keep its water use flat over the past two decades through conservation efforts despite growing populations.

Mr. Gleick said water efficiency programs are known to typically produce more water for a much smaller cost than dams. “There’s $100 million for conservation [in the bond], yet conservation is the most cost effective—in a sense—water out there,” he said. Dams, on the other hand, produce “the most expensive new water.”

The Pacific Institute, which virtually never takes a position on legislation, will not take a position on Prop 1. But it is working on an analysis of the bond, to be released on Oct. 20, which will focus in particular on the question of water storage, including how much water the bond could yield, and at what cost.

Mr. Gleick stressed that regardless of the pro and cons—and it has genuine positive aspects, he said—the bond provides money for projects years into the future. “Even if the bond passes, it’s not going to provide any short-term relief for the current drought. The money in the bond will go almost entirely to long-term projects…and there’s a lot of ambiguity about which projects,” he said.

Surface storage isn’t the only option for that $2.7 billion earmarked for water storage projects. The bond could also fund groundwater storage, praised as less expensive and friendlier to the environment. 

Groundwater storage projects would identify areas where groundwater basins are now overdrawn and devise systems to direct water—from rivers during high flows or wet years, or from other sources like recycled wastewater ponds—to replenish them. Groundwater storage can help create or restore wetlands, and it neither requires building a reservoir nor loses water to evaporation. 

“Groundwater storage has huge potential, if properly managed, to help solve our drought problems,” Ms. Diermayer of the Sierra Club’s Bay Area chapter said. “In that regard, the clean-up of aquifers that are contaminated is important, because once they are cleaned up, they can serve as storage for storm water runoff and for recycled water to be later used for drinking water.”

But exactly how the $2.7 billion is spent all depends on how the water commission ultimately decides to allocate it. Ms. Barrigan-Parilla, for one, is skeptical that big portions will go toward groundwater storage. “Big dams will get a green light,” she said.

And there is more to the multi-billion dollar bond than the storage projects. Prop 1 allocates about $1.5 billion toward watershed protection and restoration projects, as well as $725 million for water recycling and $810 million for projects that can bolster regional water supplies, such as rainwater capture. It provides another $800 million for cleaning up polluted groundwater and $260 million for “disadvantaged, rural, or small communities.”

Ms. Barrigan-Parilla criticized those funding streams for being too little compared to the storage component and for bearing the brunt of the cuts from the former $11 billion bond. She was frustrated that the funds for clean drinking water were essentially held hostage by the storage provisions and that over $300 million is designated for conservancies that can use it for projects, like bike trails, that are unrelated to the water supply. “This is perhaps the best they could do. That doesn’t mean California should go along with it,” she said.