California Gov. Brown struggles to shore up support for water plan

WASHINGTON — Gov. Jerry Brown has shown mastery of Sacramento, but his hope for a legacy of enduring public works hinges on a different skill — the ability to work Washington.

Brown has staked much on a $24-billion plan to resolve California’s decades-long fight over moving water from the north, where most of the state’s rain and snow falls, to thirsty cities and farms in the south and the Central Valley. Winning would break a stalemate that has bedeviled the state for more than a generation and reverse one of the biggest defeats Brown suffered decades ago during his previous stint as governor.


But his project cannot move forward without the federal government’s blessing. And in the trenches of the federal bureaucracy, his adversaries have proved tenacious and powerful.

The opposition to Brown is led by some of his longest-standing rivals, who helped defeat his last run at such a big fix in 1982. Back then, voters rejected the Peripheral Canal, a waterway the Democratic governor had championed that would have skirted the edge of the Sacramento Delta.

“I told the governor, ‘We beat you in 1982 and we are going to beat you again,’” Rep. John Garamendi (D-Walnut Grove), one of Brown’s leading opponents, said in an interview in his Washington office. The fight has invigorated the veteran politician, who lives on the Delta and is among the few who have held as many posts in California politics as Brown has.

“If you steal my water, I am going to be passionate about it,” he said.

Brown has looked to Southern California Democrats as a counterweight. Their millions of constituents could see dry taps should the state’s current water system fail. But most legislators from the south have little experience with water policy, and they don’t hear much from voters on the issue.

“The fact that we don’t have more interest from the Southern California delegation is an issue,” said Mark Cowin, director of the state Department of Water Resources. “We are going to have to change that.”

The passion gap on the issue has repeatedly challenged big water project backers like Cowin, who has worked so long on building support for a Delta fix that his hair has turned white in the process.

“People don’t get how precarious and fragile their water supply is,” said Jeffrey Mount, a professor at the UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences. “The overwhelming majority of Californians see water coming out of their tap, and that is all they care about.”

Experts on all sides agree that the massive plumbing system on which the state depends is precarious. The system has degraded the environment of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, requiring costly temporary measures to protect endangered species. It’s vulnerable to earthquakes and saltwater contamination, and it won’t reliably meet the state’s future water needs, state and federal studies have shown.

“The California water system is broken, the status quo is not sustainable, and the environment is crashing,” said David Hayes, a former deputy secretary of Interior, who worked with California for years on a redesign of the Delta water system. “There needs to be a decision made about what to do,” he said, noting that “this is extraordinarily complex.”

Brown’s proposal would reengineer the fragile Delta. The plan, incorporating an elaborate series of compromises among environmentalists, farm groups and urban water users, aims to improve the Delta ecosystem while boosting the reliability of water deliveries to the south. It involves two 35-mile-long tunnels that would carry fresh water under the Delta and the diversion of as much as 67,500 gallons of water every second.

Opponents, mostly in Northern California districts in or near the Delta, call the plan too big and too disruptive. Garamendi and other congressional Democrats from the area have demanded that federal agencies scrutinize it intensely. They have effectively lobbied to keep the project’s 20,000-page environmental review file growing. And federal government scientists have raised red flags, warning that the Brown administration’s environmental findings do not all seem to be grounded in objective science.

Those comments jolted some in Sacramento. The Brown administration had hoped that careful coalition building, new developments in technology and growing concern among ecologists about a looming crisis would clear the way for swift movement on what has been an intractable problem.

Many of Brown’s backers also thought the Obama administration’s support for the governor would guarantee success. Former U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar had stood with Brown when he unveiled the plan in California last summer. Just three months ago, the president’s chief environmental advisor, Nancy Sutley, sent a memo to several Cabinet secretaries emphasizing the need for a Delta fix.

“Failure to take action is not viable, and can only lead to economic and environmental detriment for both California and the nation,” she warned.

But federal agency chiefs have resisted leaning on government scientists overseeing the plans. As a result, long-standing conflicts — between California’s north and south, its agriculture industry and environmentalists, its big water contractors and struggling municipal providers — are once again playing out in federal meeting rooms and regulatory proceedings.

“The whole panoply of interests involved in this feel so strongly and passionately that agencies know they can’t cut corners,” Hayes said.

Many opponents want regulators to consider alternatives that water experts say would amount to replacing the huge Delta tunnels with a Delta garden hose. The water districts in several large California cities and counties, including San Francisco and San Diego, have joined the lobbying effort.

“I respect the governor’s determination on this, but he is going to have to take a step back from some of the bad advice he is getting and maybe some of the preconceptions he brought to this from decades ago,” said Rep. Jared Huffman (D-San Rafael). “This is an oversized and wrongheaded project.”

Even some champions of Brown’s plan have created problems for him in Washington.

Many of the state’s Republican leaders have backed Brown’s plan because it would help the farm districts they represent. But the GOP-controlled House passed a bill last year to force the state to immediately stop rationing water for agriculture. The restrictions, which farm groups oppose, are in place to keep the Delta ecosystem from caving in. The move threatened to upend Brown’s plan for a big fix.

After opposition from the Brown administration, the bill stalled in the Senate.

The Brown administration is racing to have the details of its draft plan worked out with federal regulators by October, a deadline the administration set for itself. Opponents relish the possibility that the goal won’t be met, which they are eager to claim as a victory.

“It will not happen,” Garamendi said. “They won’t be able to address all the concerns these federal agencies raised in two months…. I think they thought they could railroad it. They were wrong.”