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CALIFORNIA

Water bond is full of sweeteners

More than $1 billion in an $11-billion measure to provide clean water will go toward pet projects of lawmakers.

November 18, 2009|Patrick McGreevy

SACRAMENTO — Lawmakers want voters to borrow $11 billion next year to keep California supplied with clean water, but more than $1 billion of the money is earmarked for projects that have little or nothing to do with quenching the state's thirst.

The bond proposal includes funding for bike paths, museums, visitor centers, tree planting, economic development and the purchase of property from land speculators and oil companies -- all in the districts of lawmakers whose key votes helped it pass the Legislature.

"It's unfortunate that so many pet projects were put in that it has just created a Christmas tree out of this bond, and most of them don't produce one drop of water," said Sen. Jeff Denham (R-Atwater), who voted against the measure when it cleared the Legislature this month.

Even where the money would be used directly to improve the water supply, opponents say it may end up financing projects that were previously discredited. One such endeavor, a proposal to store Colorado River water underground in the Mojave Desert, was rejected in 2002 by the Metropolitan Water District after experts called it too risky and full of environmental pitfalls.

That proposal was made by Cadiz Inc., headed by Keith Brackpool, who has given hundreds of thousands of dollars in political contributions to state officials. The donations include $7,400 to a committee controlled by Senate leader Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento), who pushed hard for the water legislation, which included conservation measures and environmental restoration of the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta in addition to the borrowing proposal.

Brackpool's firm hired Susan Kennedy, now Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's chief of staff, as a $120,000 consultant on the Mojave project in 2005, before she joined the governor's office.

Cadiz hailed the Legislature's approval of SBX7 2, The Safe, Clean and Reliable Drinking Water Supply Act of 2010, which will appear on next November's ballot.

"This is very good news for our public agency partners, as we expect them to be able to access the available funds for the development of the Cadiz water project," the firm said on its website.

Schwarzenegger, who signed the legislation last week, has defended the bond measure, earmarks and all.

"Let me just say that there is not one single dollar in this package that is not going to be wisely spent, because what some of them call 'earmarks' or 'pork' is for other people very important money to clean up the groundwater," he said.

In some cases, earmarks for tearing down dams and restoring salmon stocks are sweeteners for powerful environmental groups so they will help win voter approval of the measure. Other earmarks are aimed at voters whose communities would benefit.

The profusion of pork causes deja vu for those who remember Proposition 84, a 2006 water bond measure that included money for a museum, an inland aquarium and bike paths. That measure was written by lobbyist Joe Caves, who also helped draft the earmarks in the new proposal.

The latest measure includes $20 million for the Baldwin Hills Conservancy in an area represented by state Sen. Curren Price (D-Los Angeles) and Assembly Speaker Karen Bass (D-Los Angeles). Price said inclusion of the conservancy helped secure his vote on the controversial package.

"It removed any hesitancy I might have had," Price said.

The conservancy has bought 750 acres for preservation as open space, with the idea, in part, that it helps the watershed by preventing the land from being developed in ways that would pollute nearby streams. The group has its eye on hundreds more acres, which it could buy with bond money. Some of that is owned by Plains Exploration and Production, an oil company that has given millions to state political campaigns.

State Sen. Tom Harman (R-Huntington Beach) would see his district benefit from the borrowing, which he supported. It would provide $20 million for protection and restoration of the Bolsa Chica Wetlands "and for associated visitor and interpretive natural history or archaeological facilities."

Some of the money could be used to buy land that holds Indian artifacts from home builders, said Flossie Horgan, a manager with the Bolsa Chica Land Trust. The funds would help preserve important Orange County resources, she said.

Harman would have supported the water measure whether or not the Bolsa Chica funds were included, said spokeswoman Eileen Ricker.

The legislation would provide $50 million for university "research and education efforts" that focus on agricultural water supply and water quality issues. The nonpartisan Legislative Analysts' Office says research money would go to campuses including Cal State Fresno. The bond's author was Sen. Dave Cogdill (D-Modesto), whose district includes Fresno.

Another $25 million is included for San Joaquin "River Parkway projects" in the Fresno area. The parkway master plans call for bike trails and other amenities.

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