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China's no template for California

On a trade mission, Gov. Brown touts the country's efficiency. But back home, he's been navel-gazing about a water bond.

April 15, 2013|George Skelton | Capitol Journal
  • A boater glides over the Sacramento River near the town of Rio Vista, in the heart of the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta.
A boater glides over the Sacramento River near the town of Rio Vista, in the… (Luis Sinco, Los Angeles…)

SACRAMENTO — Maybe Gov. Jerry Brown has been in China too long. Because some presumably serious comments by him while riding a bullet train were amusing head-shakers.

"People here do stuff," the governor marveled, according to an article by Times reporter Anthony York. "They don't sit around and mope and process and navel-gaze."

Compared to California, Brown continued, "the rest of the world is moving at Mach speed."

Time out, governor. Back to reality.

First, China is a nation with deep pockets, not a state that until very recently was hemorrhaging red ink.

Second, and more important, it is an authoritarian regime that just shoves people off any land wanted for building a rail line, a toxic dump or a massive water project. It can imprison protesters. And it thinks nothing of butchering and polluting the landscape.

California, thankfully, is constrained by democratic checks and balances — and strict environmental regulations. The regs sometimes are abused and they need to be reformed, but at least we don't feel compelled to wear surgical masks outside, as many do in Beijing.

And it's why California still has bucolic regions like the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, which I was sitting down to write about when I got detoured by Brown's quotes.

Navel-gazing can be good. It provides time to listen and to think.

It can help avoid tragedies like the collision between two Chinese bullet trains two years ago that killed 40 and injured nearly 200. The government responded by burying the derailed cars and restricting media coverage.

Last week, the government-run news agency reported that China's former rail minister has been charged with corruption.

But navel-gazing also can be about procrastinating. And Brown has done his share, although he loves to decry the practice.

Last summer, in proposing an ambitious re-plumbing of the delta that would complete and modernize the California Water Project that his father, Gov. Pat Brown, began half a century ago, the septuagenarian governor proclaimed: "At this stage, as I see many of my friends dying ... I want to get [stuff] done. And I'm going to get this done. All right? We are not going to sit here and twiddle our thumbs and stare at our navel."

But since then, Brown has been thumb-twiddling and navel-staring over a critical piece of the re-plumbing, a water bond that must be approved by voters.

Let's back up. In 2009, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed a landmark two-piece water package passed by the Legislature that is still far from being implemented.

One part, among other things, provided a pathway for construction of two 40-foot wide, 35-mile long tunnels carrying fresh Sacramento River water under the brackish delta to aqueducts headed south into the San Joaquin Valley and Southern California.

The $14-billion tunnel construction would be paid for by water users. But, politically, the tunnels can't be built unless a water bond is passed to finance ecological restoration of the delta. Federal and state agencies wouldn't permit it.

The second piece of the water package was an $11.1-billion bond that reeked so badly of rancid pork that the politicians, fearing voter rejection, have twice pulled it off the state ballot. It's currently slated for the November 2014 ballot.

But everyone agrees it's dead without a substantial pork paring. They're waiting for the governor to decide how he wants to reshape the bond.

"He hasn't spent a moment engaging" legislative leaders, complained one, a Democrat who didn't want to be identified for fear of suffering the governor's wrath.

The lack of discussion isn't limited to just water, the lawmaker contended. It also includes other pressing issues: healthcare, education financing, gun safety.

I called Jerry Meral, Brown's water honcho at the Natural Resources Agency, to ask what the governor wants in a bond.

"I don't know," said Meral, a longtime Brown ally on water. "To my knowledge, he hasn't even taken a position on the current bond. We're going to be coming up with an administration position, but he hasn't yet."

The longer indecision goes on at the Capitol, Meral said, the harder it will be to organize a campaign to win voter support.

There seems to be a legislative consensus that the bond should be slashed to around $7 billion, tops.

There's also talk of substantially reducing — maybe by two-thirds — the $3 billion currently earmarked to help pay for two or three new reservoirs.

That would be unfortunate for both water storage and flood control.

California needs another couple of large holes to stash water, such as the San Luis reservoir in the San Joaquin Valley. Unfortunately, however, the reservoir is currently only about 60% full — normally it'd be chock-full — because of the broken delta.

San Luis was shorted roughly 800,000 acre-feet of water over the winter because of delta pumping restrictions needed to protect fish. Those pumps are fish gobblers.

That's why delta re-plumbing is needed.

Not so fast, say delta residents, including farmers. Brown's tunnel plan would significantly muck up their lives — literally.

All that muck from digging the tunnels would be hauled off in large trucks clogging their narrow farm roads for years. They'd be denied fresh river water siphoned by the tunnels. Bucolic little towns would become industrial eyesores.

Delta people are feeling like Chinese peasants about to be trampled by an authoritarian Sacramento.

When Brown returns from China, he should take a short trip to the delta for some thoughtful navel-gazing. Then engage legislators and shrink the bond — maybe the proposed tunnels too. Fix the pumps so they're fish-friendly. And move at Mach speed.

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