A project to protect Californians who live near the Salton Sea from deteriorating air quality could sink or swim based on the outcome of a June ballot measure.
Proposition 68 would allow the state to borrow $4 billion through bonds to fund parks and environmental protection projects, including $200 million for a plan to preserve the rapidly shrinking Salton Sea.
California's largest lake has been evaporating since San Diego's regional water agency stopped sending it water this year. Falling water levels increase the lake's salinity and expose thousands of acres of dusty lakebed, which wind sweeps into nearby farming communities. The dust worsens air quality in the Imperial Valley, where childhood asthma rates are already among the highest in the state.
"It is an environmental time bomb that is ticking," said state Sen. Kevin de Leon, who authored the bill to place the measure on the ballot. "This is a down payment to begin the process of restoring and revitalizing the Salton Sea."
The measure would also fund parks in underserved parts of the state and projects to protect against flooding and to clean up water supplies. There are four other propositions on the June 5 primary ballot, including state constitutional amendments about how to spend money from the state's recent gas tax increase and cap-and-trade fees.
Flooding created the Salton Sea after the Colorado breached a dike in 1905. It sits about 150 miles (240 kilometers) southeast of Los Angeles. It is home to hundreds of bird species including pelicans and cormorants, but rising salinity and pollution have depleted populations of fish and the birds that eat them.
The conservation project would build ponds and channels or pipelines around the edges of the lake to control dust and create bird habitats. The project's first phase has $80 million of the roughly $410 million needed.
The $200 million from the bond measure "would be a healthy additional dose of funding to build these projects and the benefits could be quite large," said Pacific Institute researcher Michael Cohen, who studies the Salton Sea.
Proposition 68 would authorize general obligation bonds, which must be repaid with interest over time.
State Sen. John Moorlach said the state shouldn't add more bond debt.
"There is already too much debt on the books in California," said Moorlach, a Costa Mesa Republican. "A bond means that a tax is coming."
The state currently spends a little less than 5 percent of its general operating budget on debt. The Legislative Analyst's Office predicts that if Proposition 68 passes, annual spending on debt could remain below 5 percent through 2025.
Proponents argue the state isn't overly burdened with debt and that Proposition 68 would fund vital projects.
The ballot measure would also provide $725 million to build parks in underserved neighborhoods. A similar bond measure in 2006 also promised to build parks, but more than a decade later about a fifth of those parks still aren't finished.
Twenty-eight neighborhood park projects funded by the 2006 measure remain in progress, two of which are still in the planning phase, according to data from the California Natural Resources Agency.
De Leon, a Los Angeles Democrat, said he hopes the lessons learned from implementing the 2006 bond measure will ensure parks are built more efficiently if Proposition 68 passes.
"We want to make sure that the dollars go out the door sooner rather than later because our children can't wait longer to have access to Mother Nature, nor should they," de Leon said. "I have great confidence that that will happen."