Historic water reform package passes Legislature

The California Legislature voted early this morning to overhaul the state's governance of water supply, sending a five-part reform package to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R).

A day after the water effort seemed near collapse, Senate leaders managed to negotiate a settlement to finish their half of the work as the clock ticked well beyond midnight. Crucially, the Senate passed revised legislation to enact a groundwater monitoring program, clearing a key roadblock.

With the Senate's work done, the action turned to the lower chamber, where lawmakers traded blows until about 4 a.m. PST over a comprehensive package that opponents called an unprecedented expansion of a state bureaucracy that is already the nation's most extensive. But the Assembly overcame the protests to pass the four policy sections of the omnibus effort, along with an $11.14 billion bond measure to finance water projects.

If the governor signs the package, the bond would be placed on the November ballot next year, as any new debt must be approved directly by voters. The bond was raised at the last minute in the Assembly from a previous level of $9.99 billion.

The increase brought a round of reprisals from critics who cited the state's economic woes and recent budget cuts to core programs like education and health care. Assemblymember Chuck DeVore (R), a candidate for Sen. Barbara Boxer's (D) seat in Washington, said the bond measure had been "so bulked up with pork" it would fail next year.


"This is not the time to put an $11.14 billion bond before the voters," Assemblymember Mariko Yamada (D) added.

Schwarzenegger, a supporter of the bond, is expected to sign the entire package.

Core details

The bills moved by the Legislature are nothing if not complex, but they would essentially accomplish five key goals. The package would:

  • Do away with the long-troubled CalFed program and the Bay Delta Authority to establish a seven-member governing council to oversee both restoration of the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, which supplies water to 23 million Californians, and future construction of levees, dams, canals or other water projects.
  • Mandate a 20 percent reduction in urban per capita water use by Dec. 31, 2020.
  • Begin the first-ever groundwater monitoring program in the state, wresting control of the process from local authorities.
  • Prevent illegal diversions and increase fines for those found stealing water.
  • Pursue funding for all of the above.

Water monitoring had threatened to derail negotiations this week, but Senate Democratic leader Darrell Steinberg offered a concession to Republicans who feared regulators would encroach on private property, writing language into the final bill that would prohibit regulators from accessing private land without prior approval.

"It's a fair balance," Steinberg said minutes before the Senate passed the bill.

Elsewhere, many proponents hope the new governing council, with members appointed by the governor and the Legislature, will be able to cut through red tape and slow-moving environmental reviews to expand conveyance and storage facilities. Among the options the council would likely consider once created is construction of a multibillion-dollar peripheral canal around the delta to farms and urban users in the south.

Intense debate splits environmentalists

The votes yesterday came after an intense round of lobbying that saw prominent environmental groups in Sacramento working against each other.

In support of the policy provisions (but not necessarily the bond) were the Nature Conservancy, Environmental Defense Fund, Natural Resources Defense Council and California League of Conservation Voters, among others. Firmly against it were the Sierra Club, Friends of the River, and Planning and Conservation League.

To Steve Evans, conservation director of Friends of the River, the backing of NRDC, in particular, meant implicit support for building a peripheral canal around the delta. Moreover, Evans took issue with NRDC's claim that it has no position on the bond, calling it a politically convenient calculation.

"NRDC claims that they oppose the bond, but if you pass policy without funding, it's just a piece of paper," Evans said.

NRDC's Barry Nelson, head of the group's Western Water Project, countered that his coalition of environmental groups had formed the first "growing middle" on water legislation in a generation. He noted that the groups had joined with the Westland Water District, the Orange County Business Council and others to back Steinberg's package in what amounts to a cease-fire among common enemies.

"Suffice it to say that NRDC and the Westlands Water District have disagreed about many things over the years, frequently before a federal judge," Nelson wrote in a blog post. "But perhaps it is a sign that a truce is possible, giving us time and breathing room to develop workable solutions."

In a subsequent interview, Nelson said Evans has misrepresented his position on the bond, for one, and failed to see the big picture in terms of the environmental restoration provisions that survived into Steinberg's bill.

"This is the most ambitious water reform bill the state has considered in a quarter-century," Nelson said. "There are a number of new protections for the delta that we don't have under current law that make this a far stronger bill."

Among those protections is a provision that would require the state to determine how much water the delta needs to keep fish alive and save the ecosystem from further destruction. "Environmentalists have been trying to get that determination made for 23 years," Nelson said. "It's enormously important."

But Evans said the legislation would drag water lawyers into court for a decade and result in more infrastructure, more debt and less water for all parties concerned. He also claims the politically appointed council of seven would tend to favor throwing money at the problem, to build new infrastructure instead of advancing aggressive conservation, desalination, recycling and groundwater management measures.

"A $9 billion bond will cost the taxpayers $576 million a year for 30 years," Evans said. "It's just not feasible, because the state's debt service on bonds already authorized by the voters will grow to about 10 percent of the state's budget and will contribute to more state funding cuts."

Lawmakers were caught in the same debate. A vocal opponent, Sen. Lois Wolk (D), called the legislation a "litigation haven" that could cost the state anywhere from $52 billion to $78 billion in new water projects. But Steinberg, in remarks on the Senate floor, countered that the peripheral canal was anything but assure, as the council would have to consider all alternatives and subject its review to the "co-equal" goals of environmental protection and water supply.

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

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