YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

CAPITOL JOURNAL : Water still divides the state

November 16, 2009|GEORGE SKELTON

FROM SACRAMENTO — Years ago, pundits and pols began redrawing the California political map with an east-west divide, erasing the historic north-south split. Now they can partition it north-south again, at least in mapping the reignited water war.

In voting patterns and attitudes about social issues and the environment, California generally has become divided east and west -- interior and coastal.

"The closer to the ocean, the farther to the left," notes longtime Democratic political consultant Richie Ross.

But on water, as illustrated by the recent legislative battle, combatants still are lined up north and south.

In fact, a close look shows that it's even more regional than that. Divvying up water has historically been California's biggest statewide problem, but it always boils down to a local issue.

"Nothing's more local than our toilets," Ross observes.

Capturing a reliable supply for flushing, drinking, washing and irrigating pits farmers in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta against farmers in the San Joaquin Valley, people in the Bay Area against delta environmentalism and farmers everywhere. And so on.

"It's like a Yugoslavian civil war with different factions," says Republican consultant Kevin Spillane.

That said, the main legislative battle line again was drawn across the Tehachapi Mountains, as it has been for generations. Lawmakers representing the arid, urban Southland heavily supported the controversial package of water development, conservation mandates and fixes for the deteriorating delta, California's main water hub. San Joaquin Valley representatives also tended to back it.

But most lawmakers from wetter Northern California -- beginning at a line drawn from the Bay Area through the delta to Sacramento -- voted no.

Example: An $11.1-billion water bond issue demanded by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Republican leaders was supported by 40 Southern California members of the Assembly but by only 15 lawmakers from the central and northern parts of the state. Fifteen northerners opposed it.

Similarly in the Senate, 20 southerners supported the bond, but only seven from the rest of the state did.

A linchpin bill to create a new delta governing structure -- and pave the way for a potential "peripheral canal," dam construction and environmental restoration -- received 37 Southern California votes in the Assembly but only nine from central and northern lawmakers. Nineteen northerners voted against it. In the Senate, it was roughly the same pattern.

This was one of those very rare occasions -- and I can't recall another in recent years -- when the battle was much less about political partisanship than regional rivalries.

Republican Sen. Dave Cox, who represents part of Sacramento County and the Sierra, bluntly articulated northern fears and resentment during a late-night floor debate. "We're not talking about your water," he scolded southerners. "We're talking about our water. The water comes from the north.

"It's about taking water away from somebody who has the water and giving it to somebody who wants it."

In the Assembly, Roger Niello (R-Fair Oaks) complained that the legislation was "running roughshod over the water rights" of northerners.

Assemblywoman Alyson Huber (D-El Dorado Hills) held up a plastic crate full of 2,000 postcards from constituents opposing a peripheral canal, which would divert fresh Sacramento River water now flowing into the saline-prone delta and funnel it directly into the California Aqueduct headed south. Huber, who as a child lived in a trailer park behind a delta marina, later carted the postcards down to the governor's office.

She and other Delta-region legislators strongly object to the makeup of a powerful new governing body called the Delta Stewardship Council. Of its seven members, only one will represent the delta. Four will be appointed by the governor and two by the Legislature.

"It's like if you lived on the coast and the Coastal Commission only had people from Bakersfield, Fresno and Redding," she says. "What else can you conclude? This looks very much like a big water grab."

Southerners and their few -- but powerful -- northern allies used a Rodney King "Can't we all just get along?" appeal.

Assemblyman Mike Feuer (D-Los Angeles) lectured that the north and south must "rely on each other." Sen. Joe Simitian (D-Palo Alto), a water package sponsor, asked: "Are we prepared to put aside our regional differences and act as one California?"

Well, no, except for a few -- most notably Senate leader Darrell Steinberg, a Sacramento Democrat who negotiated and pushed the hardest to pass the legislation. He argued that the delta waterworks were broken -- killing fish, not delivering for agriculture -- and that the status quo is unacceptable. Compromise was necessary.

Los Angeles Times Articles