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Getting her feet wet on water

June 09, 2008|GEORGE SKELTON

SACRAMENTO — Assembly Speaker Karen Bass admits to being "strictly a city kid" who's basically clueless about California's most valuable resource: water.

"Coming from L.A., we use it all, but we have no concept where it comes from," the Democrat says, poking fun at herself and other Southlanders. "We get it out of a bottle or the tap . . . "

"I know that it's a contentious issue -- I mean 'Chinatown,' the movie.

"That was the extent of my knowledge. And then I come up here and find out I live in a flood plain [near the Sacramento airport]. I was stunned."

Bass is laughing over lunch. She's acknowledging her water ignorance, but -- most important -- expressing an eagerness to learn.

Recently, before replacing termed-out Fabian Nunez (D-Los Angeles) as Assembly speaker, Bass took trips to Bakersfield and Fresno to hear firsthand about California's dire water problems. "I'd never been on a farm before," she says, until Assemblywoman Nicole Parra (D-Hanford) marched her into a field to learn about irrigation.

Bass is one hopeful sign for impatient water warriors because of a leadership transition at the Capitol.

Another is Sen. Darrell Steinberg of Sacramento, who has been selected by fellow Democrats to be the next Senate leader, replacing termed-out Sen. Don Perata (D-Oakland).

Steinberg is a policy wonk who, as a Sacramentan, is very familiar with the leaky, creaky Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta and its vulnerability to flood or, worse, earthquake.

The delta estuary is California's main water hub, the source of drinking water for 24 million people and irrigation for 3 million acres. It also has become a deathtrap for fish, ranging from the endangered tiny smelt to disappearing popular salmon. So federal courts have cut back on water exports to save the critters.

Steinberg, chairman of the Senate water committee, is eager to repair and update the state's aged water facilities. So is Bass, unlike her predecessor Nunez, whose main interest in water was to use it as a bargaining chip to achieve universal healthcare.

Water talks between Perata and the Schwarzenegger administration were scuttled when the Senate killed Nunez's health insurance bill in January. A bitter Nunez would have killed any water bond proposal the Senate had sent the Assembly. But Perata denied him the sweet revenge by pulling the plug on water.

Bass has told Perata that she has no such hang-ups about water and healthcare.

Neither does she or Steinberg harbor the instinctive opposition to dams that many environmentalist-influenced Democrats have exhibited in recent years.

"What's absolutely true is I'm open," Bass told the Sacramento Press Club last week. "I don't come into this issue with rigid positions around dams."

But she is concerned about cost, benefits and who pays, Bass added.

That has been a major quarrel among water negotiators. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Republicans have argued that the cost should be 50-50: half public, half water contractor.

They contend that the public would use any new dam for flood control and recreation and the water for delta ecological restoration. Democrats counter that water contractors -- for farmers and city dwellers -- traditionally have financed the lion's share of dams.

There has been some recent progress on resolving this dispute.

Sen. Michael Machado, a Democratic farmer from San Joaquin County, has been the Senate point man on water. He now has concluded that the public should pay 100% of the building cost for a long-proposed, off-stream dam called Sites, near the Sacramento River in Colusa County. It's needed for delta restoration and flood control, he says. Any surplus could be sold to water contractors.

But Machado, who represents delta farmers, still is leery of carving a so-called peripheral canal around the delta to carry Sacramento River water into the southbound California Aqueduct. That would rob the delta of fresh water, he notes.

That issue currently is being studied by a Schwarzenegger-created blue-ribbon commission, which is expected to recommend building a combo contraption to transport water in canals both outside and inside the delta. That could muck up the delta's most popular, scenic recreational boating area, called the Meadows.

But the Legislature won't decide that this year -- or maybe ever. The administration believes it has the power, granted by voters in 1960 when they authorized the State Water Project, to build a peripheral canal without asking the Legislature. Contractors would pay the entire cost.

Prediction: No peripheral canal -- or anything else it might be dubbed -- will ever be built without legislative approval. Nor should anything that significant.

The water issue has resurfaced in Sacramento because of the driest spring in history and a disappointing Sierra snowpack that has evaporated in warm weather and wind.

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