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Gov. wants to ask voters for more water funds

A key official urges a bond issue to raise billions for dams and a study of building a canal around the vulnerable Sacramento River delta.

July 11, 2007|Nancy Vogel | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — Diving into California's most turbulent water dispute, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's top water appointee on Tuesday proposed asking voters next year to pay for new dams -- and, quite possibly, a canal arcing around the vulnerable Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

In a legislative hearing, Department of Water Resources Director Lester Snow said the governor would like to place a bond measure of at least $4 billion on a 2008 ballot, even though the Legislature and Schwarzenegger have yet to begin spending the $5.4 billion from a water bond issue that voters passed in November.

More money is needed, Snow told legislators, for the heart of California's complicated water system: the delta where the state's two biggest rivers converge. Just before they reach the Pacific Ocean near San Francisco, huge federal and state pumps divert water to Central Valley farms and the faucets of 18 million Southern Californians.

"We believe there needs to be significant investment in the delta that is not currently available," Snow told a legislative committee Tuesday. "I think there's substantial evidence that the delta is completely broken.... We need to invest significantly."

Left unspoken by Snow were the words "peripheral canal," which conjures up the nasty 1982 ballot battle after which voters rejected a 43-mile canal around the delta. The 62%-38% vote came after a campaign that one television station likened to civil war. Northern California newspapers railed against the canal plan, saying it would suck dry the Sacramento River to sprinkle lawns in Los Angeles.

But it was clear where Snow was indicating the administration was headed. He told lawmakers he wanted to work with them to put on next year's ballot a measure that would embrace two pending bills: one that would begin construction of two dams in Northern and Central California and another that would force state water officials to evaluate several versions of a canal skirting the delta.

Snow spoke in vague terms of building more "conveyance" and "making the delta sustainable" -- words that echoed recent remarks by Schwarzenegger.

Snow was not available after the hearing to elaborate. Underscoring the political sensitivity of the matter, however, water department Deputy Director Mark Cowin later said the administration was not necessarily pursuing a peripheral canal that would move water directly from the Sacramento River to the pumps, bypassing the delta. Another option, he said, would be improving existing delta waterways.

The delta is as vulnerable as it is politically explosive, and the danger posed to California's farmers and residents has been the subject of recent studies by research universities and the state itself.

Its pump diversion point is vulnerable to earthquakes, which could knock down the earthen barriers that channel water. The endangered fish that use those channels can also force regulators to shut down the pumps; last month, they were closed for 10 days to protect native smelt, putting some farmers on the verge of plowing under crops.

Snow's comments came as he voiced the governor's opposition in the Assembly Water, Parks and Wildlife Committee to a bill by Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata (D-Oakland) that would dictate the spending of $480 million from water and flood-control bonds passed by voters in November.

That bill, which passed the committee, would not do enough to advance creation of reservoirs or effect a change in how water is moved through the delta, Snow said.

"We do not want to see some early implementation and everybody go home and think we've solved the water problem in California," he said, "because we have not. We need additional long-term investment. We'd like to see that done in this session. Not in the future."

Even without details, Schwarzenegger's proposal faces deep skepticism from Democrats in Northern California.

"It's premature," said Assemblywoman Lois Wolk (D-Davis), whose district includes the northern delta. "The delta is in terrible crisis. The people of California have been very generous with bond money. Neither the peripheral canal nor any dam could be built for the next 10 to 15 years, and we have immediate needs."

Last fall Schwarzenegger created a blue ribbon commission to find a way to improve the delta as both habitat and water source. He put in charge Phil Isenberg, a lobbyist and former lawmaker from Sacramento who helped lead the fight against the 1982 peripheral canal measure.

Isenberg acknowledged in an interview Tuesday that things have changed in the last 25 years.

Of the more than 100 people who have so far addressed his panel, he said, "no one is arguing the delta's in good shape."

"Everyone tells us the delta is a mess," he said. "This is a fairly startling change in the tone and texture of the debate."

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