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Gov. sets conditions for water legislation

Schwarzenegger says he won't sign anything that doesn't included bonds for new dams and reservoirs, making a deal seem less likely. Democrats see such facilities as a costly sop to agribusiness.

August 19, 2009|Bettina Boxall

The chances that Sacramento will break the stalemate on California water policy this summer grew dimmer Tuesday when Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said he would not sign legislation that doesn't include bonds for new reservoirs and dams.

The declaration signaled Schwarzenegger's dissatisfaction with a package of water bills that Democrats are hoping to move through the Legislature before the mid-September adjournment.

"I will not sign anything that does not have above-the-ground, below-the-ground water storage," the governor said at a news conference on the steps of the Capitol in Sacramento. Inside, Democrats were holding the first of a series of public hearings on the bills.

Schwarzenegger has for several years promoted a bond package to pay for new water infrastructure, including a proposed dam and reservoir in the Sierra foothills northeast of Fresno and a reservoir in Northern California.

But he has been stymied by Democrats, who favor cheaper groundwater storage and consider new surface storage a costly sop to the agribusiness interests that would reap most of its benefits.

Southern California water managers say a new reservoir in Northern California would be of little use to them because the water would still have to be shipped south through the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, which is in ecological collapse and subject to increasingly strenuous pumping restrictions.

They want a new method of getting water south, probably a multibillion-dollar canal that would carry supplies around the delta from the Sacramento River.

The Democrats' water package does not authorize specific projects, but creates a powerful council that would have the authority to embark on proposals such as a delta bypass. The council's members would be appointed by the governor and the Legislature.

The bills also include delta protections, call for an examination of water rights in the delta watershed and mandate a 20% reduction in per capita urban water use.

Assemblyman Jared Huffman (D-San Rafael), a sponsor of the package and chairman of the lower house's Water, Parks and Wildlife Committee, said the state needed to agree on what to do about the delta's many problems before approving the issuing of bonds.

"We're out of money, and we've got the worst credit rating in the United States," he said. "To suddenly link [a bond measure] to the resolution of the critical crisis in the delta I think is irresponsible."

Assemblyman Mike Feuer (D-Los Angeles), another author of the water package, noted areas of agreement with the governor, such as the need for more urban water conservation. "I do not think that anyone should consign this effort to defeat already," he said.

Darrell Steinberg of Sacramento, the top Democrat in the state Senate, said he was open to a package that included a general obligation water bond, but that the $10 billion advocated by Republicans in last year's failed talks was too large.

And he added, "I have some skepticism about dams because of their expense."

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bettina.boxall@latimes.com

Times staff writer Shane Goldmacher contributed to this report.

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