Water bond needs slimming down

A retooled proposal needs less pork and more storage, recycling and environmental fixes.

SACRAMENTO — Barrels of excess water have been tumbling down the Sacramento River with nowhere to go except the San Francisco Bay and out to sea.

To be precise, 58,000 cubic feet of water per second — think of one cubic foot as a basketball — have been rushing past California's capital en route to the Golden Gate.

Normal winter flow when it's not storming is around 20,000 cubic feet per second, according to the state's chief hydrologist, Maury Roos.

Some of that extra water is needed to flush out the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta and bay. And 11,000 cubic feet is being pumped south from the delta, mostly into the San Luis storage reservoir off Pacheco Pass in the San Joaquin Valley.

But it would make sense to stash even more of the runoff in some basin for use during the upcoming, inevitable drought. You could pour the storm volume into a surface reservoir. Then, from there, inject it slowly into an aquifer.

And it would be smart to transfer the Sacramento River water into the southbound California Aqueduct through two proposed gravity-flow tunnels running under the brackish delta. That way, there'd be much less need to use giant fish-killing delta pumps that have been messing up California's salmon industry.

It also would stabilize delta water deliveries, since the pumps periodically are shut down to protect the fish.

The recent storm that hammered Northern California was a good soaker, but not an extraordinary water producer. A better example of why California's waterworks badly need updating came in March 2011. In that deluge, roughly 200,000 cubic feet per second cascaded through the river system, but the delta pumps had to be turned off because all the reservoirs were full.

"We need another water parking lot," says Tim Quinn, executive director of the Assn. of California Water Agencies.

Those old delta levees, of course, are gradually crumbling and vulnerable not only to flooding but also to an earthquake. A severe quake could shut off delta water deliveries to the San Joaquin Valley and Southern California indefinitely, bashing the state's economy. A tunnel system would bypass the delta levees.

All this has been chewed over for decades in the Capitol. But there has only been incremental progress.

"Water is the most challenging issue facing the state — legally and politically," says state Sen. Fran Pavley (D-Agoura Hills), veteran chairwoman of the water committee.

Now water policy is back on the priority list for Gov. Jerry Brown and the new Legislature.

"I'm going to get this done," Brown adamantly told reporters in July while proposing the delta tunnels. "All right? We are not going to sit here and twiddle our thumbs and stare at our navel."

OK, but the governor was preoccupied during the summer and fall in selling voters his tax increase. And lately he has been focused on budget writing. Water has gotten little attention.

The big water decision facing the governor and lawmakers next year will be what to do with a proposed $11.1-billion bond that the Legislature passed in 2009. The measure reeked so badly of rancid pork that the politicians twice wisely pulled it off the state ballot.

But there's a consensus that they can't just keep shelving the measure. They either have to fix it or dump the thing and start anew. Put something on the 2014 ballot.

There are some very good ingredients in the proposed bond, including $2.3 billion to upgrade the delta and restore its ecology, $3 billion potentially for a dam or two and $1 billion for water recycling and well-water cleanup.

But there's at least $2 billion worth of fatback, including $455 million for "drought relief." That drought ended long ago. There's also $100 million — at U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein's insistence — for the Lake Tahoe watershed, which feeds Nevada. There are goodies such as bike trails, open space purchases and "watershed education centers."

"Obviously we have to revisit the pork projects," says Pavley, whose district was in line for a bite or two.

The bloated bond was part of a landmark two-piece water package passed by the Legislature at dawn after an all-nighter. The second part created a streamlined governing structure for the delta and a pathway to construction of the tunnels. It also required water conservation and groundwater monitoring.

But the second piece ultimately will require bond money to implement. Not the tunnels, however. They would be financed by water users through higher rates.

Sen. Lois Wolk (D-Davis), who represents four delta counties, says the current bond proposal should be ripped up and a new one written — focusing on delta restoration, cleaning up drinking water throughout the state, flood protection and regional water needs, such as recycling.

"Times have changed since 2009," she notes.

One thing that has changed is the Legislature. Of the 120 current lawmakers, Wolk calculates, only 44 were members when the bond passed. In the 80-member Assembly, only 13 were around, and six voted against the bond.

Substantively, dam advocates now are willing to consider requiring water users — rather than general taxpayers — to pay more of the construction cost through higher rates.

"I'm a realist," says Quinn, who represents 450 water agencies. "I'm prepared to sit down and talk about it."

And virtually everyone agrees the bond size must be significantly reduced.

"Make it lean and mean — $6- to $7 billion," Senate leader Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) told me.

Capture more Sierra snowmelt. Restore salmon runs. Clean up underground water. Expand recycling.

Forget bike trails and land buys. Look voters in the eye with a straight face.

george.skelton@latimes.com

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