Legislature OKs Southland-Backed Water Project


In a significant victory for Southern California water interests, the Legislature on Monday approved a $235-million water project aimed at ensuring continued flows from the Colorado River.

The state Senate then approved a measure linked to the water bill in a package deal: the $210-million purchase of the 7,500-acre Headwaters Forest in Humboldt County, the largest stand of ancient redwoods still in private hands, and a nearby 900-acre stand of redwoods known as Owl Creek. Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa (D-Los Angeles) predicted that the lower house also would follow suit and approve the Headwaters purchase later in the night.

Gov. Pete Wilson late Monday endorsed the Headwaters deal--which environmentalists oppose and about which the owner, Maxxam Corp., has been noncommittal. "The governor really wants to save these trees," said Wilson spokesman Sean Walsh.

In another series of significant votes, the Senate and Assembly also approved $155 million to help struggling students and public schools, though part of the program appears to be headed for a veto by Wilson.

The voting and deal-making came as lawmakers considered more than 100 bills on the last day of the legislative session. For Southern California, the big one involved water.

"It's the most important vote we'll cast here," Sen. Steve Peace (D-El Cajon) said, proclaiming that the project amounts to a "fundamental shift" away from new dams, reservoirs and massive aqueducts toward conservation.

The money would be used to line parts of the All-American Canal and its Coachella branch in Imperial County with concrete and to provide ground water storage along the Metropolitan Water District's aqueduct.

The canal moves Colorado River water to San Diego, and water officials believe that the project is vital for Southern California's water needs.

By lining what now are earthen canals with concrete, Imperial Valley farmers could conserve significant amounts of water. That would reduce demands by Southern California on water from the north.

Remnant of Failed Bond Package

The $235-million canal project is the remnant of a $1.7-billion bond package that failed last week. San Diego-area lawmakers led by Peace quickly fashioned legislation that focused on the canal.

The MWD, as well as water interests from San Diego and Imperial counties, pitched in by hiring some of the most influential firms in town to push for its passage. Among the lobbyists were several former legislators and ex-aides to Wilson.

"Whatever we lose [in water] we come north for," said Raymond Corley Jr., the main lobbyist for the MWD.

Chris Frahm, chairwoman of the San Diego County Water Authority, hailed the vote as "tremendously important for California," and said San Diego will enjoy "a secure source of water for the first time in our history."

The measure was opposed by some conservatives, who viewed it as too costly, and some liberals, among them Sen. Tom Hayden (D-Los Angeles), who cited opposition from environmentalists.

Several Northern California lawmakers supported it, although it had no direct benefits for their districts. They said, however, that they will come calling later, seeking Southern California support for their various proposals for bigger reservoirs, flood control projects, even the long-stalled Auburn Dam in their part of the state.

San Diego-area lawmakers insisted that they gave no assurances to Northern California legislators, though Assemblywoman Denise Ducheny (D-San Diego) said they would "get our undying love."

Under a compact with other states and the federal government, California is allocated 4.4 million acre-feet of water each year from the Colorado River. In recent years, however, the state has drawn 800,000 acre feet above that amount.

Other Western states that depend on the Colorado have been demanding that California reduce its take. U.S. Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt has threatened to order a mandatory reduction unless California takes steps on its own.

If the canal is lined, less water will find its way to the Salton Sea, already a distressed body of water that has had mass die-offs of fish and birds. The bill includes money to study ways of reviving the Salton Sea.

Pay Raise Talks Continue

The water vote came as lawmakers rushed to finish work before adjourning for the year at midnight.

In an example of political horse trading, supporters tied their support of the water project to the legislation turning Headwaters into a redwood park.

Sen. Byron Sher (D-Stanford), who helped negotiate the purchase, said it will provide protection for the forest and for endangered species that depend on it.

Maxxam representatives could not be reached Monday. But Sher said the company had agreed to the terms. The state's $210 million, combined with $250 million from the federal government, would leave the firm $460 million richer and relieve it of the hassle of fending off years of litigation and protests from environmentalists over logging.

Sen. Mike Thompson (D-St. Helena), who represents Humboldt County where the redwood stands are located, added that the deal would permit Maxxam subsidiary Pacific Lumber to continue logging on 200,000 other acres it owns, and predicted that the purchase would "end decades of debate" over Headwaters.

Shortly after the vote, however, a protester shouted from the gallery above the Senate chambers that the deal amounted to "extortion."

"I'm sure the struggle will go on," said Hayden, one of only five senators who opposed the purchase. He charged that the $460-million price tag will enrich Maxxam chairman Charles Hurwitz, the focus of much of the protesters' anger.

Even as the legislative session drew to a close, there was talk of more deals. Union leaders representing state workers continued to seek a pay raise, without success. In exchange for agreeing to a pay raise, Wilson, in his final year in office, was angling for up to $10 million from the Legislature to pay for 40 new judges, whom he would appoint.

Education Bill Counterproposals

On the education bills, lawmakers approved a school accountability bill by Sen. Tim Leslie (R-Tahoe City) that would spend $50 million to attempt to reform up to 250 unspecified low-achieving schools by holding them accountable for academic improvement of students.

However, schools could choose whether to participate in the program. As a result, Wilson opposed it as "toothless."

Wilson offered counterproposals that call for investing the State Board of Education with new power to deal with low-performing schools.

Wilson also would allow parents to pull children out of the schools, make it easier to dissolve school districts by joining them with adjacent districts, and waive teacher union rules on overtime to allow teachers, if willing, to put in longer hours teaching slow learners.

One bill that was approved would end automatic promotion of poor-performing students to the next grade by requiring them to repeat grades or by giving them after-school and summer school instruction.

In a related measure, the Assembly sent to Wilson a package of bills that substantially increase retirement benefits for public school teachers who stay on the job. One measure, AB 1002, by Assemblyman Wally Knox (D-Los Angeles), would extend higher benefits to teachers with 30 years experience and would give them cash credit for unused sick leave.

Among other actions:

* The Senate gave final approval on a 23-15 vote to a bill, SB 1500, by Sen. Richard G. Polanco (D-Los Angeles) that would ban the sale of handguns that fail two basic safety tests. The tests would require that the guns not fire when dropped from a distance of about 3 feet, and that in normal use they would fire 20 times without a misfire. Wilson has been critical of the measure.

* In legislation inspired by a student's school science project, the Legislature gave final approval to a bill that authorizes county sealers of weights and measures to check the accuracy of parking meters.

* The Legislature sent the governor bills arranging for independent investigations of prisons and increasing guard training. The office of inspector general in the Youth and Adult Correctional Agency would become an independent office.

* Legislation to move the California presidential primary from June to the first Tuesday in March won narrow approval and was sent to Wilson, who probably will veto it.

* The Senate approved a bill authorizing the state to make a $9.1-million settlement with the city of Portola, Plumas County and various business adversely affected by the state's poisoning of Lake Davis to rid it of the voracious northern pike.

For many lawmakers, 27 of whom are being turned out because of term limits, Monday was bittersweet. Sen. Ralph Dills (D-El Segundo), first elected during the Great Depression, gave a rare display of emotion, saying a final thank you to his colleagues. When another termed-out senator asked the 88-year-old Dills which group of lawmakers was the best, Dills demurred with an assertion that he had managed to survive 50 years in public life without making a personal enemy.

Sen. Diane Watson (D-Los Angeles) also was in her final session. When one of her bills came up, a measure dealing with state funding of food stamps, Sen. Jim Brulte (R-Rancho Cucamonga) spoke out against it, telling his colleagues that there would be "very few opportunities left for Republicans to vote against a Watson bill."

Times staff writers Carl Ingram and Tony Perry in San Diego contributed to this story.

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