Lawmakers want to put Gov. Jerry Brown's delta tunnels plan before voters

Lawmakers representing the Sacramento-San Joaquin delta, the heart of California's water system, have introduced a bill that would make Gov. Jerry Brown's controversial twin tunnels project subject to statewide voter approval.

"The Legislature should be able to weigh in on this. And certainly the people should be able to weigh in on this," said Assemblywoman Susan Talamantes Eggman (D-Stockton), an author of the bill.

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The $15-billion construction project, which is currently in the administrative approval process, involves two massive tunnels under the delta that would transport Sacramento River water farther south to the state's agricultural and urban hubs.

The tunnels have become a signature issue for Brown, who argues it is necessary to shore up the state's ecologically and structurally fragile waterworks. But the plan faces stiff opposition from delta-area landowners, who argue more water exports could harm the surrounding environment.

Brown included an oblique reference to the tunnels project in his State of the State address Thursday, listing "reliable conveyance" as a necessity to protect California's water supplies. His office made the connection more overtly, releasing a slickly produced video touting the delta plan as a crucial upgrade to the state's water infrastructure.

But the tunnels already face one challenge at the ballot box: an initiative slated for November 2016 would require voter approval for many public works projects, including the delta plan.

Now Eggman and other delta-area lawmakers of both parties want to explicitly single out the tunnels project for a statewide vote.

"Let’s have this statewide conversation about if this is the project we need," Eggman said.

The ballot box has not been kind to other efforts to rework the state's water system.

In 1982, voters overturned legislation to build a peripheral canal around the delta, funneling water south. The vote split regionally -- Southern Californians were strongly in favor, while those in the north decisively rejected the plan -- underscoring the fraught geographic battle lines in the state's water wars. 

On Friday, the Brown administration struck a dismissive tone on the latest proposal.

"We see no need to comment on this," spokeswoman Deborah Hoffman said.

Brown would probably veto any legislation that could imperil the project. And the bill faces other political hurdles in the Legislature. The tunnels are backed by some of the Capitol's most influential players, including business groups, labor unions and powerful water districts. 

Eggman, acknowledging the measure's dim outlook, said she would "do her best" to get it to the governor's desk, but said the bill also had value in "having the conversation" about the project's merits.

Follow @melmason for more on California government and politics.

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