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LOCAL POLITICS

California lawmakers should not procrastinate on water plan

George Skelton's suggestion: Lock the Capitol doors until California lawmakers agree on a water storage plan

How soon people forget: One spring day just three years ago so much water was rampaging down the Sacramento River nobody knew where to put it.

All reservoirs up and down the Central Valley were full.

Oh, if only there was more storage space, Sacramento Republicans cried. Darned anti-dam liberals. Tree-hugging environmentalists.

Roughly four acre-feet of water — enough to supply eight families for a year — was tumbling past the state capital every second. All this water was rolling through the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta into San Francisco Bay and out the Golden Gate to sea.

All the water was not wasted, of course. Much of it was — always is — needed to flush out the delta, push back salinity and carry salmon to the ocean where they generate a valuable and iconic coastal fishing industry. But not that much water.

A bunch should have been stashed for the inevitable next drought — for the 24 million people who rely on the delta for drinking water and farmers who use it to irrigate 3 million acres.

Now fast forward to Monday in the state Senate.

Up for a vote was a proposed $10.5-billion water bond that contained $3 billion for dam-building. It was a particularly generous offer for the reservoir beneficiaries.

The borrowed $3 billion — repaid by taxpayers through the state's general fund — would have covered up to half the cost of a dam project. The rest would have been paid for by the beneficiaries — the water consumers — through higher monthly rates. Historically, the beneficiaries have footed 90% or more of such costs.

But no Republican senator voted for the bond. It needed a two-thirds majority and fell five votes short at 22, all supplied by Democrats.

Suddenly, reservoirs — "surface storage" in water lingo — ranked No. 2 in Republican priorities behind something called BDCP. It stands for Bay Delta Conservation Plan and has become a euphemism for tunnels.

The $26-billion BDCP, a product of state government and large water districts, contains two elements. One is a $15-billion twin tunnel project — each tunnel 35 miles long, 40 feet wide — beneath the delta to siphon fresh Sacramento River water. The second is $11 billion for ecological restoration and operating costs; the former necessary to attain government permits for tunnel digging.

The tunnels themselves would be paid for by water users through higher rates. The delta restoration would be footed by all taxpayers via bonds.

San Joaquin Valley farmers, especially, are desperate for the delta water and are pushing for the tunnels. So is the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California. Gov. Jerry Brown sees the big pipes as a legacy builder.

Delta farmers, naturally, are fighting the tunnels. They don't want to lose their fresh water and have their land mucked up by the massive tunnel boring. They're supported by many environmentalists.

So the overriding issue for Republicans in Monday's bond vote was not water storage, but whether the proposal would help or hurt the tunnel effort — whether it would fund the type of restoration projects that would lead to the digging permits. Taking their cue from water districts, the GOP lawmakers decided it wouldn't.

The bond, by Delta Sen. Lois Wolk (D-Davis), was advertised as "tunnel neutral." But Republicans didn't trust the neutrality.

"You can't have both storage and tunnels" in a bond, Senate leader Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) told Republicans during the floor debate. "This is your last chance to grab $3 billion for storage."

Steinberg appears to have been correct. One day later, Brown emphatically poured cold water all over the $3 billion idea.

Finally weighing in on the issue, Brown privately told legislators that he preferred only $2 billion for storage. And the total bond shouldn't exceed $6 billion. The bond would go on the November ballot.

The governor — running for reelection in November as a prudent skinflint — also raised the possibility of offering voters a second, smaller $2-billion water bond in 2016, legislators reported.

But the most important information Brown privately gave the lawmakers, Oracle-like, is that if it's on the ballot, he'll oppose an old $11.1-billion water bond the Legislature passed in 2009. Lawmakers previously yanked that off two ballots because it reeks so strongly of pork that it's deemed not passable.

Many Republicans and water districts have been hoping — dreaming — that Californians would hold their noses against the smelly pork and vote for the '09 bond anyway because we're in a historic drought. That proposal also includes $3 billion for water storage and is considered pro-tunnel.

But Brown awakened them Tuesday. That bond almost certainly will be pulled off the ballot again and this time probably buried for good.

Now the Capitol politicians face serious compromising. Failure to agree on a water plan while farm fields are being fallowed and homeowners are letting their lawns die could be very embarrassing.

"We need to put something on the ballot, something that's palpable to all the disparate interests up and down the state," says new Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins (D-San Diego). "All have to feel they have skin in the game."

There's much more at stake than tunnels and dams. All the bond proposals floating around would also fund such worthy local projects as drinking water purification, storm water capturing, aquifer recharging, watershed restoration, recycling and desalination.

Leaders want to reach a deal before the lawmakers head out on vacation July 3. My suggestion: Lock the Capitol doors until they get it done. Otherwise, they still may be procrastinating during the next flood.

george.skelton@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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