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California Gov. Brown struggles to shore up support for water plan

Gov. Jerry Brown's $24-billion plan to end California's long fight over moving water from the north to the south and Central Valley faces stubborn federal opposition that includes some state Democrats.

August 06, 2013|By Evan Halper
  • Water from the north moves through the Central Valley on its way to Southern California. Gov. Jerry Brown’s plan to resolve the state’s long fight over water will need federal lawmakers’ blessing.
Water from the north moves through the Central Valley on its way to Southern… (Russel A. Daniels, Associated…)

WASHINGTON — Gov. Jerry Brown has shown mastery of Sacramento, but his hope for a legacy of enduring public works hinges on a different skill — the ability to work Washington.

Brown has staked much on a $24-billion plan to resolve California's decades-long fight over moving water from the north, where most of the state's rain and snow falls, to thirsty cities and farms in the south and the Central Valley. Winning would break a stalemate that has bedeviled the state for more than a generation and reverse one of the biggest defeats Brown suffered decades ago during his previous stint as governor.

But his project cannot move forward without the federal government's blessing. And in the trenches of the federal bureaucracy, his adversaries have proved tenacious and powerful.

The opposition to Brown is led by some of his longest-standing rivals, who helped defeat his last run at such a big fix in 1982. Back then, voters rejected the Peripheral Canal, a waterway the Democratic governor had championed that would have skirted the edge of the Sacramento Delta.

"I told the governor, 'We beat you in 1982 and we are going to beat you again,'" Rep. John Garamendi (D-Walnut Grove), one of Brown's leading opponents, said in an interview in his Washington office. The fight has invigorated the veteran politician, who lives on the Delta and is among the few who have held as many posts in California politics as Brown has.

"If you steal my water, I am going to be passionate about it," he said.

Brown has looked to Southern California Democrats as a counterweight. Their millions of constituents could see dry taps should the state's current water system fail. But most legislators from the south have little experience with water policy, and they don't hear much from voters on the issue.

"The fact that we don't have more interest from the Southern California delegation is an issue," said Mark Cowin, director of the state Department of Water Resources. "We are going to have to change that."

The passion gap on the issue has repeatedly challenged big water project backers like Cowin, who has worked so long on building support for a Delta fix that his hair has turned white in the process.

"People don't get how precarious and fragile their water supply is," said Jeffrey Mount, a professor at the UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences. "The overwhelming majority of Californians see water coming out of their tap, and that is all they care about."

Experts on all sides agree that the massive plumbing system on which the state depends is precarious. The system has degraded the environment of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, requiring costly temporary measures to protect endangered species. It's vulnerable to earthquakes and saltwater contamination, and it won't reliably meet the state's future water needs, state and federal studies have shown.

"The California water system is broken, the status quo is not sustainable, and the environment is crashing," said David Hayes, a former deputy secretary of Interior, who worked with California for years on a redesign of the Delta water system. "There needs to be a decision made about what to do," he said, noting that "this is extraordinarily complex."

Brown's proposal would reengineer the fragile Delta. The plan, incorporating an elaborate series of compromises among environmentalists, farm groups and urban water users, aims to improve the Delta ecosystem while boosting the reliability of water deliveries to the south. It involves two 35-mile-long tunnels that would carry fresh water under the Delta and the diversion of as much as 67,500 gallons of water every second.

Opponents, mostly in Northern California districts in or near the Delta, call the plan too big and too disruptive. Garamendi and other congressional Democrats from the area have demanded that federal agencies scrutinize it intensely. They have effectively lobbied to keep the project's 20,000-page environmental review file growing. And federal government scientists have raised red flags, warning that the Brown administration's environmental findings do not all seem to be grounded in objective science.

Those comments jolted some in Sacramento. The Brown administration had hoped that careful coalition building, new developments in technology and growing concern among ecologists about a looming crisis would clear the way for swift movement on what has been an intractable problem.

Many of Brown's backers also thought the Obama administration's support for the governor would guarantee success. Former U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar had stood with Brown when he unveiled the plan in California last summer. Just three months ago, the president's chief environmental advisor, Nancy Sutley, sent a memo to several Cabinet secretaries emphasizing the need for a Delta fix.

"Failure to take action is not viable, and can only lead to economic and environmental detriment for both California and the nation," she warned.

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