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Feinstein pressures Calif. lawmakers on water bond

By SAMANTHA YOUNG  August 12, 2008  Press Enterprise

SACRAMENTO - Sen. Dianne Feinstein on Tuesday pressed California lawmakers to set aside ideological differences and put a water measure on the November ballot, saying upgrading the state's aging water system is an urgent priority.

California's senior senator told Sacramento business leaders that it was critical for members of her own party to drop their long-standing opposition to new dams.

A $9.3 billion water bond she negotiated with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger includes some money for dams and underground storage, as well as billions to clean up contaminated groundwater and improve conservation.

A population that is headed toward 40 million and threats to the Sierra snowpack from global warming should be pushing California's water problems to the front of lawmakers' agenda, Feinstein said.

"The time is now," she said. "If you wait, it will be too late to do what we need to do to get up and running to meet this hotter, drier future that is coming."

There is consensus among farmers, environmentalists and urban water agencies that California's half century-old system of reservoirs, pumps and canals can't meet the state's future needs as it is operated now.

In addition, the levees, water quality and native species are deteriorating in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, the heart of the state's intricate water-supply system.

Many of the state's reservoirs are less than half full, the result of two dry years and a federal judge's order that cut water deliveries out of the delta to protect a threatened fish.

As a result, state and federal contractors are getting just 35 percent of their deliveries this year. Several water agencies throughout the state have imposed conservation measures or are considering them if California endures another dry winter.

Feinstein and Schwarzenegger announced their $9.3 billion bond proposal in July, but it has failed to move forward in the Legislature. It sets aside about a third of the money for reservoirs and other storage projects.

Republicans and Democrats remain at odds over dams and whether to build a canal to pipe river water around the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta two strategies being considered to improve water supplies and restore the delta.

Assembly Speaker Karen Bass, D-Los Angeles, met with Feinstein on Tuesday and said Democrats were reviewing the bond proposal but would not rush it through the Legislature.

"What we don't know is whether we can finish in time to put it on the ballot," Bass told The Associated Press in a telephone interview. "To go out and ask the voters to approve $9 billion, we need to make sure we are very thorough in that process."

Negotiations on the overdue state budget have dominated the agendas of legislative leaders since July, leaving them little time to concentrate on the ballot proposal for water.

Farmers, irrigation districts or any other entity that would benefit from a new dam would pay at least half the cost, but Democrats question whether the state should foot the bill for the rest. The reservoir sites would be chosen by a commission appointed by the governor with little legislative oversight.

Saturday is the deadline for the Legislature to put an initiative on the Nov. 4 ballot, but lawmakers have extended such deadlines in the past.

Schwarzenegger spokesman Aaron McLear said the governor hopes both a budget and a water bond can be passed by the deadline.

"It's not like they're starting from scratch," McLear said of the water bond. "We believe an agreement can come together very quickly."

The plan by Feinstein and Schwarzenegger also faces opposition from environmental groups.

Several rallied outside the Capitol on Tuesday, arguing that building dams or a canal would take decades and do little to address California's immediate water troubles.

"These 19th century solutions they are proposing are not going to help us in today's world," said Jim Metropulos, senior advocate of the Sierra Club in California. "We stand here today to say not now, not this time, not this water bond."

Instead, the groups say the state should invest in cheaper programs to boost conservation, water efficiency, water recycling, groundwater storage and desalination efforts.

"Make no mistake that new reservoirs are not about saving fish or protecting the environment. They're about taking more water," said Zeke Grader, executive director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations.

The groups said they plan to wage an opposition campaign if the Feinstein-Schwarzenegger bond makes the ballot.

Feinstein said she wasn't worried about opposition from environmental groups, which typically are her allies.

"Everybody wants something that is kind of a deal-killer, but you have to put together the basics and that's what this bill does. It is the basics," she said.

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