Gov. Jerry Brown's call for a drastically cheaper water bond set off a fresh round of negotiations in the Capitol on Wednesday, as lawmakers and stakeholders seek to craft a plan that addresses the state's myriad water needs without a bloated price tag.
Brown's $6-billion bond proposal, which was fleshed out in greater detail Wednesday, marks a significant step up in the governor's engagement with the effort to pass a water bond to replace the $11.1-billion measure now on the November ballot.
"The negotiations are much more serious now than they were before," said Timothy Quinn, executive director of the Assn. of California Water Agencies. Before Brown weighed in, "we weren't getting anywhere.… We were waiting for the governor to show his hand — and now he has."
Many parties involved are smarting from the slashed price tag. Alternative proposals moving through the Legislature this year have ranged from $8 billion to $10.5 billion.
"A lot of stakeholders are jumping up and down very unhappy that it's $6 billion because it doesn't provide enough. I agree," said Mario Santoyo, executive director of the California Latino Water Coalition. "But let's not start getting the torches out here yet. Let's start working and negotiating and get it to a better place."
According to a blueprint circulated to interested parties, Brown's proposal would include $1.5 billion for water quality and supply reliability projects, including water conservation, wastewater treatment and groundwater cleanup. The latter is a top priority for the Los Angeles region, where lawmakers are seeking to clean up the contaminated San Fernando Basin.
"As a Los Angeles-area lawmaker, I want to make sure we're able to clean up our region's abundant groundwater," said Assemblyman Mike Gatto (D-Los Angeles). "As a Californian, I recognize how good for the rest of the state it would be if Los Angeles doesn't have to import as much water."
Brown's proposal would also put $2 billion toward storage projects, such as dams and reservoirs. Republicans and some Central Valley Democrats say that figure is too low. The water bond on the ballot has $3 billion designated for storage.
Assemblyman Frank Bigelow (R-O'Neals), who met with the governor Tuesday, said he told Brown that a bond pruned to $6 billion "would be very difficult for us to attain." Nevertheless, he said, he believed that Brown was "very firm" in keeping the bond's price tag low, in hopes of not adding too much to the state's debt load.
Bigelow said he agreed with the governor's concerns about debt. But "we are going into one of the worst droughts ever. We are facing uncertainty with the ability to provide water to the different components of this state," he said.
"We need to invest in the infrastructure of the state. I think we can do it and do it prudently and effectively," he said.
Quinn agreed that the drought might make voters more inclined to support a larger bond.
"But the drought has not gotten rid of skepticism of the voters of government waste," he said. "Everything you can do to protect yourself against that helps. The person voters view as their knight in shining armor [against waste] is Gov. Jerry Brown."
Brown also conveyed to lawmakers Tuesday that he had concerns with the 2009 bond now scheduled for this year's ballot. The governor's opposition could further damage that measure's prospects, which are already teetering under criticism that it is laden with earmarks.
But supporters of a larger bond have not abandoned the possibility of keeping the old measure alive.
"My hope is that we'll work something out with the governor. But if that fails to occur, there's no question that a number of stakeholders will push hard for the '09 to be viable on the ballot," said Santoyo, whose group helped negotiate the measure.
Also noteworthy is Brown's desire to disassociate the bond from his plan to build two enormous tunnels under the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to transport water farther south. The question of how the bond may advance that project has been one of the thorniest issues in the Legislature's negotiations.
Still, some Delta interests are skeptical that Brown's plan would be "tunnel neutral."
"I don't think it's real," said Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla, whose group Restore the Delta opposes the tunnels. She noted that Brown's proposal would put money toward water-related habitat protection, which she said could go toward ecological restoration central to the tunnel project.