Voters might face dueling water bonds

Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO -- Deadlocked over what role dams should play in California’s next wave of waterworks investment, lawmakers Tuesday threatened to ask voters to sort it out on a ballot next year.

Two water bond proposals -- a dam-heavy version backed by Republicans and a dam-neutral version backed by Democrats -- each fell to defeat in the Legislature this week, prompting advocates of the bills to look to the initiative process.

The result could be dueling water bonds on the June or November ballots next year, although Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and lawmakers of both parties expressed hope Tuesday that a compromise could be reached in the next few days, in time for the Legislature to act to put a water bond on the Feb. 5 ballot.

“I think in the end we can come together on this,” said Schwarzenegger in a Sacramento press conference, “because all we want to add is storage. . . . We can spend all the money in the world on water issues, but if we don’t have storage, we’re not going to solve the major problem, which is that we can guarantee people that in 20, 30, 40 years from now, when they turn on their faucet, that there’s water coming out.”


Schwarzenegger and Republican lawmakers seek a $9.1-billion bond that would invest up to $5.1 billion in three new or expanded reservoirs in Glenn, Colusa and Madera counties. The remainder of the bond money would go toward water recycling, environmental protection, pollution cleanup and other water-related projects.

Democrats call the proposal an unprecedented and unwarranted investment of taxpayer dollars in dam projects. They argue that the farmers or cities that use whatever additional water the dams capture should pay construction costs.

The Democrats, who dominate the Legislature, rejected the governor’s measure Monday in the Senate Natural Resources Committee. Central Valley agricultural interests backing the bill vowed to find the more than $1 million it would take to qualify the measure for the ballot.

“We’re prepared to do what we have to do to save the most vulnerable of our state,” said Fresno Mayor Alan Autry. Poor, largely Latino San Joaquin Valley farming towns will be hardest hit by water cutbacks, he said, whereas an expansion of Millerton Lake, northeast of Fresno, would safeguard supplies and improve flood control.


A separate $6.8-billion water bond proposal backed by Democrats on Tuesday failed to get a single Republican vote -- four were needed -- to pass the full Senate.

The bill’s author, Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata (D-Oakland), vowed to launch a signature-gathering campaign to qualify the proposal for the ballot as an initiative. His measure would divvy money among regions for groundwater cleanup, conservation, desalination and other projects but also allow up to $2 billion to be used for reservoir construction or expansion.

Perata argued that his bond would stretch water supplies twice as far as the Republican proposal at a lower cost to taxpayers.

With the state’s major reservoirs low, a second dry winter looming and federal endangered fish protections curtailing how much water Southern California can pump from the state’s hydraulic hub south of Sacramento, Perata said his bond proposal would help regions live within their local water supplies.


“You can’t make that same argument about dams,” he said.

Though Perata said he would file paperwork with the attorney general today to launch an initiative, he also said he was willing to boost the amount of money in his proposal for dams and called on the governor to kick-start negotiations.

“Candidly, if the governor got us together and said. . . here’s how far apart we are, and how could we make sure we bridge that gap,” Perata said, “I think it could happen.”