Capitol Journal: Gov. Jerry Brown helps whip up a palatable water bond

A canal waters rice fields and nut orchards
A lateral canal flows off the Glenn-Colusa Canal near fields of rice and nut orchards near the town of Williams in the Sacramento Valley.
(Brian van der Brug, Los Angeles Times)

Five years after producing a pork-bloated water bond proposal that failed the smell test, the Legislature has offered up a new serving that’s lean and digestible.

Credit mainly Gov. Jerry Brown, who had the right recipe: smaller portions, light on delta ingredients.

The Legislature passed the bond bill Wednesday night.

It doesn’t quite fill everyone’s appetite but will do just fine.


The governor and Legislature were at their best: dickering, rather than dithering, while admittedly prodded by a deadline to place a bond measure on the November ballot.

“You want what you want, but all politics is a matter of compromising and making sure you get what you need,” said Senate leader Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento).

Well, all good politics anyway. Too often in Sacramento, the governor and the Legislature are paralyzed by partisan politics, only slightly less repugnant than the president and Congress in Washington.

Steinberg, nearing the end of his reign as Senate president pro tem, was instrumental in negotiating the new $7.5-billion bond measure. He also was a principal negotiator of the 2009 $11.1-billion borrowing measure that was so larded with putrid pork that legislators twice pulled it from the ballot, fearful voters would gag.


This latest bond — to be called Proposition 1 — will replace the former stinker, which was saturated with fatback to attract legislative votes as sleep-deprived lawmakers and then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger bargained all night.

“In the final day of negotiations,” then-Assemblyman Chuck DeVore (R-Irvine) told me, “the bond’s value grew by $100 million an hour.”

It contained such extraneous goodies unessential to water development as bike trails, “watershed education centers” and open space purchases. There also was money for a Lake Tahoe water taxi — in a watershed that actually feeds Nevada.

Back in 2009, Steinberg recalled Tuesday, “I was at the beginning of my tenure as leader. You dive in. My goal was to get a water deal. There had not been one for many decades.”

After that, Steinberg learned a bad deal is worse than no deal at all.

It wasn’t all bad, however. That bond proposal was part of the most comprehensive water package in half a century, dating to when Gov. Pat Brown — Jerry’s father — created the ambitious California Water Project.

The 2009 deal imposed a new, streamlined governing structure for the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta — the state’s main, broken water spigot — paving the way for massive replumbing and ecological restoration, plus statewide groundwater monitoring.

This latest bond seems relatively pork-free — “seems” being a necessary wiggle word because as the amended bill was being rush-printed Wednesday for votes in both legislative houses, only a few people had fully scrutinized it.


Everyone at the negotiating table got something. Nobody went starving.

Brown for months resisted placing a water bond on the ballot as he ran for reelection. He apparently feared that it would blemish his image as a fiscal conservative and that the measure would become a referendum on his controversial $26-billion delta tunnels project.

But politically he couldn’t afford to look like an obstructer of water development during a historic drought. And now he correctly looks like a leader.

“He’s doing a great job,” Senate Republican leader Robert Huff of Diamond Bar told me Monday. “He’s engaged. He’s trying to make it happen. It’s a little bit late in the game, but he is engaged.”

After Democrats tried floating $10.5 billion in borrowing, Brown offered $6 billion, ultimately raising the sticker price to $7.5 billion to accommodate Republican demands for more dam money.

The Democratic governor expressed concerns about the state’s already outstanding general-obligation bond debt of $76 billion, which requires annual payments of $5.2 billion.

When Brown did weigh in, he pushed hard. He negotiated personally with Democrats and Republicans and cautioned them not to procrastinate.

“When a water plan fails, it’s not years until the next plan is taken up, it’s decades,” he said Tuesday. “I’ve certainly seen that in my own life.”


Republicans made off with $2.7 billion in dam construction money. Brown originally offered only $2 billion, then $2.5 billion. He came up an extra $200 million at the end while tagging on a $150-million sweetener in non-dam money for coastal areas.

The GOP had demanded $3 billion for water storage. But Brown’s offer was one they couldn’t refuse. Either they voted for it or their brains would be splattered in full public view.

That $2.7 billion — if approved by voters — would be the most money, by far, ever appropriated by Sacramento for dam construction.

Some of the GOP’s most influential constituents — the state Chamber of Commerce, California Farm Bureau, Western Growers Assn., Westlands Water District — wound up supporting the compromise.

So did influential Sen. Lois Wolk (D-Davis), a major opponent of Brown’s twin tunnels — 40-foot-wide, 35-mile monstrosities that would siphon fresh Sacramento River water under the delta and divert it into the San Joaquin Valley and Southern California. She made sure the bond was truly “delta neutral,” with none of the money being spent, directly or indirectly, on the project.

“The tunnels will be going on a separate path — a pretty rocky path,” she said. “It would be cheaper and more effective for the state just to reduce reliance on delta water.”

The bond would help with that by offering billions for local projects such as wastewater management, storm water capture, recycling and groundwater cleanup. Local communities become big winners.

It’s finally a bond measure voters can swallow.

Twitter: @LATimesSkelton

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