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Partisan apprehensions sink water reform package

Last-minute revisions and partisan concessions couldn't save the package of reforms aimed at fixing the state's crumbling water system. A special session may be called this fall.

September 13, 2009|Bettina Boxall

SACRAMENTO — Eleventh-hour discord over a huge bond proposal sank an ambitious legislative water package that would have brought some resolution to one of California's most contentious issues.

As the clock ticked toward adjournment of the legislative session late Friday, Democratic leaders realized they didn't have the votes and shelved a wide-ranging set of measures aimed at improving the state's water supply and stopping the environmental hemorrhaging of the center of its waterworks.

But they vowed to try again, saying they would ask Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to call a special session on water this fall.

"Everyone agrees that we are close and that we have made a decade's worth of progress in just a few weeks," Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg of Sacramento said in a statement after deciding not to move the legislation to the floor shortly before midnight.

The Democrats had rolled five proposals into one policy bill and -- in a partial bow to Republican demands -- crafted a $12-billion bond measure late in the week to pay for new water infrastructure, ecosystem restoration and supply projects such as water recycling and desalination. Backers called it the most comprehensive water legislation in decades.

Much of the package revolved around the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta east of San Francisco, the failing heart of California's water system, where the state's two biggest rivers converge. It is part of the largest estuary on the West Coast, a passageway for salmon and home to the tiny, imperiled delta smelt. It is also the conduit for shipping water from the north to Central Valley farms and Southern California cities.

But the delta is on the verge of ecological collapse, in part because of the mammoth pumping operation that feeds the federal and state aqueducts. Pumping has altered the delta's hydrology and salinity patterns and helped drive the smelt to near-extinction. The smelt's vulnerability has spurred pumping cutbacks, reducing water deliveries to farms and cities, aggravating the impact of the current drought.

Water managers are desperate for a "delta fix" to halt the waterway's decline and restore pumping operations. In pursuit of that goal, the water package reshaped various aspects of delta management and policy.

Among the measure's provisions were creation of a delta conservancy to acquire land for habitat restoration and the establishment of an independent state council that could have promoted replumbing of the delta, including a controversial bypass canal to carry deliveries around the river junction.

The State Water Resources Control Board would have been required to develop new delta flow standards and to install a delta water chief to enforce board orders.

The water package mandated a statewide groundwater monitoring program and a 20% cut in statewide per-capita urban water use by 2020. And it would have beefed up the water board's authority to enforce water rights and to crack down on illegal diversions in the delta watershed.

Major water players that have frequently warred in the past came together to support the legislation: the Westlands Water District, the most powerful farm irrigation agency in the state; the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, the biggest urban supplier in the state; the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Environmental Defense Fund.

"I think what we're trying to do is to start building a new paradigm on water issues in California that everyone knows is necessary," said Barry Nelson, of the resources defense council.

As the legislation rolled out of a joint conference committee last week, there was some resistance to the conservation, water rights and groundwater provisions.

But money was the big sticking point.

The size and the packaging of the bonds gave the Democratic rank and file pause. And Republicans complained that the $3 billion earmarked for surface and groundwater storage was written with a "poison pill" that would make it harder for new dams and reservoirs to get funded.

The Democrats proposed to put two general obligation bonds totaling nearly $12 billion before the voters, one in 2010 and the second in 2014. But Assembly Speaker Karen Bass (D-Los Angeles) said Republicans pressed for one big bond.

A general obligation bond "after years and years of cutting health and human services created a tremendous amount of angst in the Democratic caucus," which feared further cuts as a result, Bass said.

The debt service would be carried by taxpayers and come out of the state's ailing general fund, as opposed to a revenue bond financed with user fees.

Despite the setback, key Republicans and Democrats said they thought a water deal could still be struck this year.

"We need to stay on it and get it done," said Sen. Dave Cogdill (R-Modesto). "I think we're closer than we've ever been."

A spokesman said Schwarzenegger was eager for a bipartisan water package but had not decided if he would call a special session.

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bettina.boxall@latimes.com

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