Can government work? Yes

The California Legislature did something right, it would seem. So did Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Something huge and historic.

The wiggle word “seem” is needed because the exact future of the sweeping water legislation passed at dawn Wednesday is far from certain.

For starters, success will hinge on whether voters next November approve an $11.1-billion water bond issue. Last-minute sweeteners that fattened the bond size left ample opportunity for opponents to cry “too much pork.”

“My concern is that the far left and the far right could get in bed again like they did in May,” says the bond’s author, Sen. Dave Cogdill (R-Modesto), referring to the voters’ rejection of a Legislature-produced state spending cap that would have triggered an extension of tax increases.

If the bond issue passes, the water package’s future still will depend on the quality and speed of decisions by a powerful new council being created to oversee re-plumbing of the rotting Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, California’s biggest water tank and formerly a world-class estuary for disappearing salmon.


That said, the package finally passed by sleep- deprived lawmakers after an all-day-and-night session was indisputably the most comprehensive California water legislation in half a century, dating to when new Gov. Pat Brown and the Legislature created the ambitious state water project.

No major state water facilities have been authorized since, with one exception: Gov. Jerry Brown, Pat’s son, teamed with the Legislature in 1981 to authorize a so-called peripheral canal to transfer Sacramento River water around the delta and directly into a southbound aqueduct.

But an unlikely coalition of rich San Joaquin Valley farmers and environmentalists sponsored a repeal measure that voters approved. The farmers thought the canal would be too environmentally friendly; the environmentalists claimed it wouldn’t be friendly enough. Since then, the delta has tanked. And federal courts have ratcheted down the farmers’ water supply to protect fish that for decades have been sucked into giant delta pumps.

As Schwarzenegger noted Wednesday at a celebratory news conference attended by happy, groggy legislators, Brown originally built the state project for 18 million people. Now California has 38 million and is headed toward 50 million in 15 years.

Basically, the legislative package creates a new, streamlined governing structure for the delta. It provides a pathway leading to probable construction of a newly designed peripheral canal, plus a dam or two. It enables ecological restoration of the delta, mandatory statewide water conservation, monitoring of groundwater and a crackdown on illegal diversions of water.

It was three years in the making, spearheaded by Schwarzenegger, Cogdill and -- in the last year -- Senate Democratic leader Darrell Steinberg.

The final compromise involved Democrats giving on a complex water rights bill. Environmentalists had held out for a tough proposal by Sen. Fran Pavley (D-Agoura Hills) that would have provided the state vast new powers to clamp down on illegal water use. Republicans contended it would be too government-intrusive. They settled for a measure by Assemblyman Kevin De Leon (D-Los Angeles) to triple the number of state enforcement officers and police essentially the current law.

“That was my most distressing concession,” says Assemblyman Jared Huffman (D-San Rafael), who was the chief negotiator for the environmental side. Why’d he and other environmentalists cave? “We’ve got a status quo problem,” he replies. “Contrary to very shrill and misleading opposition claims, there’s an unprecedented bundle of good things for the environment and delta in this package.”

Other deals involved a time-honored tactic: The spreading of pork. Of course, one person’s pork is another’s vital program. Many can be defended, such as $1 billion for water recycling and well-water cleanup, mostly in Southern California. L.A. legislators insisted on that.

But there also was the likes of $100 million for water pollution cleanup at Lake Tahoe, which is on the other side of the Sierra from the delta watershed. That was inserted “as a direct request” of U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, Cogdill says.

Feinstein played a key role working with Schwarzenegger and pressing for a water package, Cogdill notes. “She has been a great partner and it made sense to make her as happy as we could.”

Another thing about pork: It gives voters who don’t benefit from state waterworks -- such as Tahoe residents -- a reason to support the bond. “Otherwise why should they vote for it?” Cogdill asks.

Then there’s another type of pork called a payoff. Politicians usually don’t even have to talk about it. There’s just an unspoken understanding.

For example: Sen. John Benoit (R-Palm Desert) wanted to be appointed by the governor to a vacant seat on the Riverside County Board of Supervisors. And he was, after providing key votes for the water package.

Sen. Abel Maldonado (R-Santa Maria) wants to be considered for the job of lieutenant governor, being vacated by Democrat John Garamendi, who was elected to Congress on Tuesday. Schwarzenegger will appoint Garamendi’s replacement, subject to legislative confirmation. Maldonado would have been considered anyway, but he assured himself a finalist spot with his key votes Wednesday night.

The Capitol worked the way it’s supposed to when it works.

The governor used the powers of his office.

Steinberg was tenacious and a nonstop negotiator, even siding against fellow Sacramento County and delta politicians who opposed the package.

The Assembly speaker, Karen Bass (D-Los Angeles), astutely delegated negotiating power to two potential water package opponents: Huffman on conservation and Assemblywoman Anna Caballero (D-Salinas) on the bond.

The Senate Republican leader, Dennis Hollingsworth of Murrieta, allowed Cogdill to continue as the GOP point man on water, although Hollingsworth had ousted him as leader.

The Assembly GOP leader, Sam Blakeslee of San Luis Obispo, kept his conservative flock in line.

In the end, the key sides recognized they’d won and declared victory.