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Pat Brown’s pitch for state dams still holds water

The state of California hasn’t built a big reservoir in 34 years. The politicians can’t agree where or whether to build one. So Senate Democrats this week proposed a sharp shift in state strategy: Punt to local communities.

If some region feels pressed by population growth or agriculture demands and wants a new reservoir, let it finance and put up the multibillion-dollar structure itself. The state could help out, but not be primarily responsible.

This means that local people basically would decide whether and where to build a dam, not the state. Presumably it would be an off-stream reservoir, like Castaic, Pyramid and Perris in Southern California, the last major above-ground storage facilities to be built by the state Department of Water Resources.

“The state bureaucracy has a poor track record making water supply and reliability decisions from Sacramento,” Senate leader Don Perata (D-Oakland) wrote to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in announcing his proposal.

The senator failed to mention that the bureaucracy takes its orders from politicians.

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“Many regions of the state -- from San Diego and the Coachella Valley in the south to the Sacramento Valley in the north -- are far ahead of the game,” Perata continued. “Simply put, they know better than we do what their water needs are and how to meet them.”

That’s a serious and sad confession.

It is true that regional agencies have outperformed state government in developing new water facilities in the last three decades.

The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, for example, has added roughly 3 million acre-feet of storage in recent years, enough to supply about 750,000 families annually. That water provides a reserve supply for dry spells. Two-thirds of it is in underground storage. The MWD also paid for and built the $2-billion Diamond Valley Lake near Hemet, which it fills with 800,000 acre-feet of water from the Colorado River and State Water Project.

But if the state were to abandon dam-building completely -- indeed, all major storage enhancements, including underground -- that would mark a dramatic turn from its historic role.

The lionized Gov. Pat Brown, after all, peddled the State Water Project to voters 47 years ago on the thesis that “we’re all in this together.” It was in California’s larger interest, Brown successfully argued, to unite behind flood control in the north and water deliveries in the south. That has been the state mantra ever since.

Even with this unity pitch and water users paying for the project, it was a tough sell.

Oroville Dam, the indispensable cornerstone of the State Water Project on the Feather River, never would have been built to catch northern snowmelt for San Joaquin Valley farms and L.A.'s population boom if its construction had depended on Sacramento Valley locals.

For that reason, Republican legislators and the Schwarzenegger administration flatly oppose the Democrats’ notion of granting local control over water storage, a philosophical paradox for the party of big centralized government.

“The state must act as the adult responsible for coordinating water movement in the state,” says Sen. Dave Cogdill of Modesto, the Republicans’ turn-to man on water, whose party normally favors local control.

State water Director Lester Snow notes: “We have a statewide system.”

Democrats decided to turn over responsibility for new water storage to local agencies, I suspect, because they’re tired of fighting Republicans -- and among themselves -- over whether to build more dams, which their environmental allies hate.

Also, it was “water week” for Schwarzenegger. This has been his pet promotion in recent days. So Perata decided to get in the act, too, by announcing a proposal. The goal is to negotiate a water deal by mid-September, when the Legislature recesses for the year.

Schwarzenegger wants to build two dams: one off stream in Colusa County, the other upstream of Friant Dam on the San Joaquin River near Fresno. He also hopes to fix the leaky, shaky delta -- possibly building a canal that bypasses the estuary -- and pay for it all with a $6-billion bond he’ll ask voters to approve next year.

The Perata plan, besides surrendering state power over dams, would allow local agencies to decide about groundwater storage and recycling. They could apply for state grants from a $2-billion bond kitty, part of a proposed $5-billion bond issue. There’d also be $2 billion for a delta fix-up and $1 billion for “restoration projects” -- pork? -- on various rivers, including L.A.'s.

And about $300 million in existing bond money would be spent immediately for delta and groundwater improvements.

Although they reject the regional idea, both Cogdill and Schwarzenegger applaud Perata for at least recognizing the need for another water bond and the potential merits of more off-stream storage. Cogdill sponsored a Schwarzenegger bond-and-dam bill earlier this year that Senate Democrats killed.

“It may seem like a small thing, but now at least they’re using the words ‘surface water storage,’ ” Cogdill says.

“If we’re not going to build any more dams on wild and scenic rivers -- which we certainly aren’t proposing -- we don’t have a lot of options.”

He’s optimistic about reaching a water agreement. “Pardon the pun,” Cogdill says, “but there’s a perfect storm brewing.”

It contains concerns about a Katrina-like disaster in the delta, a looming statewide drought, reduced snowfall because of global warming and the fact people keep crowding into California.

Since the state last built any dams, the population has soared from less than 21 million to nearly 38 million -- and is headed toward 50 million by 2032.

Sacramento politicians can’t punt just because it’s storming. They need to get in the game and carry the ball.

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george.skelton@latimes.com


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