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California Legislature passes state water conservation bill

The legislation, part of a larger package, mandates a statewide drop in per capita water use by targeting urban areas. The Assembly is still considering other measures already approved by the Senate.

November 04, 2009|Bettina Boxall

SACRAMENTO — The state Legislature finished with one piece of a multi-part water package Tuesday when the Assembly approved a bill mandating a statewide drop in per capita water use.

Lawmakers were headed for another long night, with the Assembly expected to take up several other measures approved by the Senate in a midnight session Monday, including a massive water bond.

"We are comfortable and confident that we will wrap up and we will have the votes," Assembly Speaker Karen Bass (D-Los Angeles) said.

The Assembly was drawing up amendments to add $1 billion to the bond measure passed by the Senate, pushing it to nearly $11 billion.

The bond, which would go before voters next year, sets aside $3 billion for new storage and $2 billion for ecosystem restoration in the deteriorating Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta.

But to attract statewide support, it spreads money all over California. 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 local drought relief, Lake Tahoe, a dam-removal project on the Klamath River in Northern California and Sierra foothill communities.

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

Noting that the bill's 45 "yes" votes came from both parties, Assemblyman Mike Feuer (D-Los Angeles), the bill's sponsor, called it "a particularly meaningful vote."

"It puts California on the road to making sure everybody has something to contribute" to conservation.

The measure has been criticized for treading lightly with agriculture, the greatest water user in the state. It directs irrigation districts to adopt management plans, but sets no conservation targets for them.

Parts of the state with high water use have also decried the conservation mandate, which demands less of a cut from urban coastal areas with lower use.

Northern areas "are willing to help with our more generous supply of water . . . but we're not willing to do it to the point of our peril," said Assemblyman Roger Niello (R-Fair Oaks). "We have a lifestyle that goes with it."

The Assembly also debated a statewide groundwater monitoring measure approved by the Senate earlier Tuesday.

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

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

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.

Many of the package provisions have been weakened during weeks of negotiations and last-minute amendments to round up votes.

A proposal to beef up enforcement of water rights and crack down on illegal diversions has proved to be particularly contentious.

Tuesday night, it was undergoing further changes. Huffman described the measure "as much watered down."

But proponents said that, if adopted, the water proposals would nonetheless represent the most comprehensive action the Legislature has taken on water in decades.

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

The Democratic Latino Caucus has joined Republicans in pushing for a major bond. Other Democrats and public employee unions worry 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 are 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," argued 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 them, complaining that the policy overhaul is anemic and the bond's burden on the state's taxpayers too great.

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bettina.boxall@latimes.com

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