CALIFORNIA:

Monitoring bill threatens to sink water package in Sacramento

The California Legislature appeared to be heading toward an historic breakthrough on water reform last night before an impasse over mandatory groundwater monitoring arose and threatened to crush a package of policy and financing bills.

Early in a long night of roll-call votes, signs were pointing to the state Senate delivering key portions of a comprehensive water package to the Assembly. The Senate passed a negotiated water policy bill, 29-4, before easily securing the two-thirds threshold required to move a controversial $9.99 billion water bond, 28-8.

Then groundwater monitoring reappeared and slowed momentum in the chamber. A bill that would require statewide monitoring of water pumped from the ground -- as opposed to more relaxed local control -- was defeated under pressure from agribusiness groups and water districts, just as it was rejected earlier this fall.

The Senate then recessed floor action and later called it quits for the night.

Groundwater monitoring has emerged as a roadblock even as advocates of water reform and restoring the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta inched close to victory in recent weeks. Vanessa Martin, a spokeswoman for the Nature Conservancy, which supports Sen. Darrell Steinberg's (D) policy package, said the failure of the monitoring bill should be taken seriously, as the issue tends to polarize the entire spectrum of water interests in Sacramento.

"They are taking it up again tomorrow," Martin wrote in an e-mail late last night. "This could once again sink the package."

Water from underground reservoirs provides about 30 percent of the state's supply, but California has no system for tracking its use, leaving it up to local agencies, and water users themselves, to control the flows and pump water from the basins, often as they see fit.

But a bill from Sen. Fran Pavley (D) would change that and lead to public disclosure of groundwater levels. The state's Department of Water Resources says as much as 60 percent of California relies on groundwater during a drought, when runoff from the Sierra Nevada drops, making it an extra-sensitive topic in recent years.

Farmers and water districts are concerned that the water monitoring effort, when stacked atop standing federal court orders that curtail water pumping in the delta to project endangered fish, would effectively mean they would have no control over water for irrigation and urban use.

DWR estimates that aquifers are overdrawn by anywhere from 1 million to 2 million acre-feet a year. Despite that, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) has vetoed several attempts in years past to implement a monitoring program, though he has shown signs of shifting his position this year, given the urgency he now associates with securing a water deal before he leaves office after 2010.

Advocates of Steinberg's water policy package, meanwhile, have called it the most important environmental restoration effort to emerge at the state level in a quarter-century. The bill would establish an entirely new process for building water infrastructure in the state, including levees, dams, canals and other waterways. The $9.9 billion bond, which would need voter approval next year, could finance the first in a series of new conveyance projects meant to shuttle water around the delta in the north to farms and urban areas in the south.

Both the Senate and Assembly are expected back in session today.

Sullivan, E&E's West Coast bureau chief, is based in San Francisco.