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Historic state water deal now up to voters

(AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)
Flanked by lawmakers and water activists, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger answers a reporters question concerning the Legislature's passage of a package of water measure's, at a Capitol news conference in Sacramento, Calif., Wednesday, Nov. 4, 2009.


SACRAMENTO -- After years of gridlock and failure, state legislators Wednesday reached a historic agreement to address California's vulnerable water supply and a dying Delta ecosystem.
But now proponents must convince a debt-weary, politician-leery electorate that it's a deal worth the multibillion-dollar price.

"We're done with part one," Assembly Speaker Karen Bass, D-Los Angeles, said Wednesday. "Part two is we need to take the message out (of Sacramento) . . . first and foremost we have to begin by educating voters about water."

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger called it "one of the greatest accomplishments" of the Legislature, crediting Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, with "shuttle diplomacy" in the face of intense pressure from competing interests.

The package would require state residents to cut water use by an average of 20 percent over the next decade and, for the first time, require water users to measure and report their use of underground water, ending California's status as the only Western state that does not regulate ground water.

It beefs up environmental protection in the Delta and puts an $11.1 billion bond measure before voters next November to pay for new dams, regional water projects, ground-water cleanup and land preservation.

The measure would fund recycling and ground-water cleanup important to Southern California, pay for Salton Sea restoration and watershed projects on the Los Angeles and San Gabriel rivers. There's also money for drought relief, Lake Tahoe and a dam removal project on the Klamath River.

Schwarzenegger is expected to sign the five bills that make up the water package.

"Many of us would like to see a bill like this go much further," said Assembly Member Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, conceding it was a "modest step."

Huffman was the only North Coast legislator to support the bond.

Assembly Members Noreen Evans, D-Santa Rosa, and Wes Chesbro, D-Arcata, and Sens. Pat Wiggins, D-Santa Rosa, and Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, voted no.

"It's the same tired story all over again," Evans said. "The Central Valley and Southern California plan to take water from the north by building a peripheral canal. The rub is that they want Northern California to pay for it too. All Northern Californians get from this bond is the privilege of paying the bill."

The bills declare the state will reduce its reliance on Delta water and elevates environmental protection of the Delta to a "co-equal goal" along with water supply reliability.

"At its core, this moves California from the extraction policies of the past to the sustainability policies of the future to protect the environment and the economy," said Tim Quinn, executive director of the Association of California Water Agencies.

In late amendments, lawmakers ditched provisions meant to crack down on illegal water diversions. The plan also contains no fees to pay for a new "Delta Stewardship Council" that would oversee developments in the Delta.

The legislation does not authorize a peripheral canal to divert water around the Delta, but it does lay out a clear path that would make the project easier to build and better able to withstand court challenges, so long as it can be designed in a way that meets a high environmental standard.

The bond initially was presented as $9.4 billion. But legislators increased it by $1.7 billion, including $1 billion added by the Assembly late Tuesday to satisfy Southern California Democrats who complained the bond favored rural areas.

The bills also include a requirement for state regulators to determine how much water must remain in the Delta to protect "public trust" values, such as clean water and healthy fish populations.

"Overall, it is a big step forward for California," said Laura Harnish, regional director for the Environmental Defense Fund, one of several major environmental groups that supported the policies in the package.

But other environmental groups, including the Sierra Club, opposed the deal and are expected to campaign against the bond measure.

"The water package that passed in the dead of night epitomizes the dysfunction that has gripped our Legislative process," said Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla, campaign director for Restore the Delta, a group of environmentalists and businesses strongly opposed to a new canal.

Delta interests say building a canal will take farmland out of production, reduce tax rolls and harm water quality.

The East Bay Municipal Utility District has objected, saying the plan could force the district to release more water from its dams on the Mokelumne River to protect the Delta if the canal is built.

The package is perhaps the most important action state lawmakers have taken to address the state's water system since it authorized construction of the State Water Project in 1960.

Despite Schwarzenegger's praise of Steinberg, the Senate leader's inclusion of $10 million for an unrelated school project in his district almost sunk the water legislation in the Assembly, where the measure was short on votes until Steinberg dropping his funding request to gain the votes needed.

The final vote approving the legislation came at 6 a.m. in the Senate.

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              Page Updated: Saturday November 07, 2009 02:48 AM  Pacific

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