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State Legislature approves comprehensive package to overhaul water system, including an $11-billion bond

November 4, 2009 |  LA Times
The state Legislature passed a wide-ranging water package that includes an $11-billion bond as dawn broke over the Capitol today.

When the Senate took the final vote just before 6 a.m., it ended years of failed attempts to confront the state’s growing water problems.

“This Legislature has accomplished something tonight that the Legislature hasn’t accomplished in decades,” Senate Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) told his bleary-eyed colleagues.

Lawmakers worked through the night adopting a set of measures dealing with such diverse issues as urban water conservation, groundwater monitoring and management of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, the collapsing center of the state’s complex plumbing system.

Many of the package’s provisions were weakened during weeks of negotiations and last-minute amendments to round up votes.

But proponents said the legislation nonetheless represented the most comprehensive action the state has taken on water in decades.

“I am so proud that the Legislature, Democrats and Republicans, came together and tackled one of the most complicated issues in our state’s history,” Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said in a statement. “This comprehensive water package is an historic achievement.”

The bond, which will go before voters in next November, ballooned to $11.1 billion as legislative leaders sweetened it with something for every part of the state and every water interest.

It sets aside $3 billion for new storage and $2 billion for ecosystem restoration in the delta.

It would fund recycling and groundwater cleanup important to Southern California, pay for Salton Sea restoration and watershed projects on the Los Angeles and San Gabriel rivers.

There is money for drought relief, Lake Tahoe, a dam removal project on the Klamath River in Northern California and Sierra foothill communities.

“I believe this measure has been so bulked up with pork it’s going to sink,” Assemblyman Chuck DeVore (R-Irvine) said in urging defeat of the bond proposal.

It took several stabs at getting the necessary two-thirds vote. Assembly members stood in clutches, lobbying reluctant colleagues during breaks. And they stripped out an earmark that was singled out as a particularly egregious example of largess: $10 million for a Sacramento nonprofit associated with Steinberg that offers watershed and “urban greening” programs to students.

State Sen. Dave Cogdill (R-Modesto) has pushed for a big water bond for years. He attributed success to a variety of factors this year: the drought, growing environmental constraints on pumping from the delta and the delta’s mounting ecological crisis.

“It’s been queued up for a while. It just took a number of things to put the pressure on to get it done,” he said.

The conservation measure sets a goal of reducing overall urban per capita water use by a fifth by 2020. Agencies that fail to meet their target would not be eligible for state water grants and loans.

California is the only Western state that doesn’t regulate or monitor groundwater usage. The bill sets up a program to measure groundwater elevations, but does not force private property owners to provide monitoring information to the state or to local water agencies.

“Many of us would like to see a bill like this go much further,” said Assemblymember Jared Huffman (D-San Rafael), conceding that it was a “modest step.”

As in the conservation measure, the stick is a loss of water funding. Counties and agencies in groundwater basins that didn’t monitor could not receive state water grants or loans.

A proposal to beef up enforcement of water rights and crack down on illegal diversions was gutted in the final hours. It adds funding for 25 new state enforcement officers and requires water users in the delta to report their diversions. But increased penalties and beefed-up enforcement powers for the state water board were dropped.

Regional interests to some extent trumped the usual partisan divides and even the north-south antagonism that has traditionally marked water politics in California.

The Democratic Latino Caucus joined Republicans in pushing for a major bond. Other Democrats and public employee unions complained that the debt service — more than $600 million a year when all of the bond parts are issued — would blast holes in the state’s bleeding general fund, further eroding state services.

Delta representatives were bitter about the bills, complaining that a new delta council helps pave the way for a freeway-sized canal on the delta’s edge that would eat up land and farm livelihoods.

“The real solution is taking less water from the delta,” said Sen. Lois Wolk (D-Davis).

The politically appointed council would oversee delta projects with the twin goals of sustaining reliable water supplies and protecting the delta environment.

The environmental groups most active on California water issues — the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Environmental Defense Fund — support the bills. But other conservation groups such as the Sierra Club and Friends of the River have fought it, complaining that the policy overhaul is anemic and the bond’s burden on the state’s taxpayers too great.

-- Bettina Boxall in Sacramento

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