DROUGHT:

Calif. Legislature passes $7.5B water bond and puts it on Nov. ballot

California voters this November will decide whether to approve the sale of $7.5 billion in bonds to fund water projects in the drought-afflicted state, after the Legislature yesterday passed and Gov. Jerry Brown (D) signed a spending package now headed to the ballot.

Facing a deadline of day's end yesterday to put the measure before voters this year, Brown and Democratic leaders made late changes to bring Republicans on board, including increased funding for water storage projects.

The state Senate approved the emergency measure 37-0. The state Assembly voted 77-2. Assemblyman Tim Donnelly (R), who is running for governor against Brown, was one of those opposing. The bill needed a two-thirds vote to move it to the ballot.

"Water is the lifeblood of any civilization, and for California, it's the precondition of healthy rivers, valleys, farms and a strong economy," Brown said after signing the bill. "With this water bond, legislators from both parties have affirmed their faith in California's future."

The Legislature approved $7.12 billion in new spending. There also will be $425 million in repurposed, previously approved but unspent bond funds for total allocations of $7.5 billion. The package includes $1.495 billion for watershed restoration, $900 million for clean groundwater projects, $810 million for water reliability, $725 million for water recycling, $520 million for safe drinking water efforts and $395 million for flood management.

The measure will be deemed Proposition 1 and will replace Proposition 43, an $11.1 billion referendum that had been slated for a November vote. The larger one was crafted in the 2009-10 Legislature, and was delayed from the 2010 ballot and then again from 2012. Brown had lambasted it as "pork-filled," with "a price tag beyond what's reasonable or affordable."

Sen. Darrell Steinberg (D), the outgoing Senate leader, said that with passage of the new measure in the Legislature, "our work is just beginning."

"We have to pass this bond in November," Steinberg said. "Otherwise, this work is for naught."

"The need is so great in California," Steinberg added. "Sixty percent of the people suffering from drought conditions, there's no better time, and there's certainly no time to say let's do this another time." The state's population is growing, he said, as "water resources are diminishing."

Some painted passage of the measure in historic terms. On the Senate floor before the vote, Sen. Jim Nielsen (R) said those approving it could tell their children and grandchildren that they had been there on a fateful day.

"Appreciate what you are part of right here," Nielsen said, adding, "There will be water for their future, for California, because of what you did tonight."

GOP agrees after $700M for storage added

Republicans agreed to back the new package after Brown consented to raise funding for water storage projects to $2.7 billion, said Peter DeMarco, spokesman for the Republican caucus and Senate GOP Leader Bob Huff. Storage had earlier been set at $2 billion, then was increased to $2.5 billion, then finally $2.7 billion. The money is needed for desired reservoirs, DeMarco said.

"It's critical, and it's been neglected ... for decades," DeMarco said.

The $7.5 billion was less than the $8.7 billion total measure that Republicans had introduced last week. That package had $3 billion in storage. Brown, in contrast, last week had urged a $6 billion "no frills" water spending package.

Asked if it was unusual to have Republicans wanting more spending than the Democratic governor, DeMarco said the GOP package was less than what Democrats in the Legislature originally had sought five years ago.

"Their demands for their pork spending and their projects, that bond became $11 billion," DeMarco said.

Assembly Republican Leader Connie Conway said that the vote followed "nearly a decade of complex and often-difficult negotiations" among many groups.

"We successfully fought back against efforts to shortchange funding for critical water storage projects," Conway said. "If Republicans had not stood firm in fighting for more storage, this funding would likely have never materialized, and we would be faced with more Band-Aid fixes to our severe droughts."

Farm Bureau approves; Sierra Club displeased

The California Farm Bureau Federation said passage of the measure marked "the beginning of a campaign to encourage Californians to invest in our state's water system."

"The severe water shortages we're currently experiencing result from 30 years of neglecting our water-storage system," said Paul Wenger, president of the group. "That neglect is magnified by the drought, and it's time to reverse that pattern of neglect. Placing this water bond on the November ballot gives Californians a chance to provide more water for our cities, for food production and for the environment."

Others were critical of the bill.

"I don't regard this bill as a compromise," said Kathryn Phillips, director of Sierra Club California. "It still has the same bad language promoting dams as the language in the 2009 bond." That wording is similar to what's in Proposition 43, she said.

Section 79752 of the measure, the Sierra Club said in a position paper, "calls for all storage funds to be expended on projects directly linked to the Delta system. This would exclude large portions of the state in need of smart, local storage help, including the Central Coast and North Coast."

"Section 79753(a)5 establishes 'recreational purposes' as a criterion upon which storage dollars are to be disbursed," Sierra Club added. "This criterion is there specifically to give dams that create new lakes a leg up in the competition for the storage dollars."

The Sierra Club also isn't persuaded, she said, that the package is neutral on the issue of whether to build two 30-mile tunnels beneath the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta. Those would cost $25 billion with the goal of reducing reliance on fish-killing pumps in the south delta and protecting fresh water from saltwater intrusion.

"There seem to be as many opinions about the interpretation and the impact of the language on that issue as there are words in the bill regarding it," Phillips said.

Twitter: @annecmulkern | Email: amulkern@eenews.net

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