The Science & Politics Behind the Game - The California State Budget and Local Water Spending
The State Budget
One might think that with the drought going on, water would take up a large share of the state budget. However, even with this year's passage of a $7 billion water bond and $600 million of emergency drought response, spending on water is still under 10% of the $156 billion state budget. The Department of Water Resources has a $3.3 billion annual budget, of which only $120 million comes from the general fund.
As for where the rest of the money goes, California's state budget is about 1/3 education, 1/3 health, with everything else ranging from transportation to prisons making up the rest.
Local Spending Pays Most of the Costs
State spending, while high profile, is a small portion of all water spending. 84% of spending is done at the local level by over 600 water districts and private utilities. This essentially means that water users are paying for most of the costs.
This also means that districts serving low-income communities have less money available for non-rainy days and have invested less in water storage or recycling technologies. In places where there is no utility service and residents rely on their own wells, the safety margin is lower. These have been the first places to run out of water. In contrast, large agencies in wealthy urban areas such as the San Diego County Water Authority are able to pay for major projects such as the $1 billion Carlsbad Desalination Plant.
Future needs and environmental justice issues
San Francisco nonprofit Next 10 has estimated that in the next 15 years, sources or savings of an additional 1.5 trillion gallons of water a year will need to be found. Depending on the approach used, closing that gap could require $3-5 billion a year.
Due to the size of the state economy and budget, the total amount of the money needed is not likely to be a major issue. However, as most of the cost of water is paid by users, and the state has high economic inequality, the relative cost to low income communities is likely to be high. These communities are also the places that have major education, health, and transportation needs as well.
Budgets and the game
In California Water Crisis, the percentage of money you'll spend on water is going to be a lot higher than what it is in the state budget. That's because for the purpose of the game, I've excluded basic operating costs of government (i.e. salaries and energy use) so your tradeoffs are between different types of capital expenditures (new construction).
I've made this choice as California has a growing population that places new demands on infrastructure, creating a situation where one must run to stay in the same place.
Different expectations for water vs. other services
These other expenses, such as schools, hospitals, transportation, or tax cuts make your approval go up as they are currently imperfect and improvements they create are immediately felt by voters. A bus that is 90% on time is felt to be an improvement over one that is 70% on time. Reducing hospital wait times and adding more seats to classrooms also creates a tangible, perceivable benefit.
In contrast, people's expectations for water are very high: in short, water must be always available. As the current reliability is already 100%, there is no room to make people happier by reliability improvements. However, fail to invest in water, and dry taps will cause such inconvenience that your ratings will plummet.