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Water bond floats toward November*

Hetch Hetchy Reservoir in Yosemite, which prvides water for San Francisco. ((Photo: Nickolay Stanev)

After months of negotiations to rewrite the controversial $11.14 billion water bond on California’s November ballot, legislation has been crafted in the Senate on a $10.5 billion plan that includes $3 billion for reservoirs and groundwater storage, and $1 billion for groundwater cleanup in the L.A. basin.

In the Assembly, legislation for a $10.25 billion water bond backed by a number of  farm groups, business interests and water agencies was  expected to be considered as early as Wednesday.

The legislation in both houses is the result of months of negotiations.

The big question is whether Gov. Brown will approve the deal — and so far he’s not saying.

“Everybody is waiting for the governor to show his hand,” said Timothy Quinn of the Association of California Water Agencies.

Removing the existing bond from the ballot and replacing it with another version requires two-thirds votes of each house. To put it on the ballot requires the governor’s signature from the governor. The initial deadline to act to make the ballot is June 26, Capitol staffers said, but that deadline is elastic.

The price tag remains billions of dollars higher than originally envisioned by several lawmakers who offered rival proposals. The lineup of proposed projects represents a delicate balance between north and south, environmentalists and water contractors, farmers and conservationists.

And while Brown has said nothing publicly, he or his staff indicated during negotiations that he favored a price tag in the $9 billion range, perhaps more,  according to people familiar with the talks.

That means a lot of bargaining may remain to be done, and that any agreement could face changes later in the session in both the Assembly and Senate in order to please Brown — as well as satisfy a number of water and business agencies that said they remained in opposition.

The Senate bill is SB 848 by Sen. Lois Wolk, D-Davis. The Assembly bill is AB 2686 by Assemblyman Henry Perea, D-Fresno.

Some groups — including the Westlands Water District, the Western Growers Association and the state Chamber of Commerce — opposed a provision in the new Senate legislation to route funding through the Delta Conservancy, which they said “is not positioned to be a neutral and credible dispenser of habitat funds.”

Some environmental groups, including the Sierra Club and the Planning and Conservation League, oppose the Assembly legislation.

On May 5, Brown said that “We want to look into a water bond and we want to find out something that would get two-thirds of the vote in the Legislature, that would get a majority vote of the people, and that would accomplish important work for the long-term. So that’s something that I’m not going to try to rattle off at this press conference, but it’s something that good minds are giving their best to.”

Among the key points in the negotiations was the inclusion of a device called a “continuous appropriation,” which means that if voters approve the bond, funding can go forward without a project-by-project debate but with the approval of the California Water Commission, whose members are appointed by the governor and confirmed by the Senate.

The continuous appropriation applies to a $3 billion piece of both bond proposals for storage, which includes dams, reservoirs and groundwater projects, among others.

Three dam options have been identified earlier – Sites near Colusa, Temperance Flat near Fresno and Los Vaqueros in the Contra Costa Water District. Of those, Los Vaqueros may be the most likely to get funding.

The roller-coaster nature of the negotiations reflects the stormy history of the bond. It originally was destined for the 2010 ballot, but was delayed in part because of fears that such a large bond would be rejected by voters in a weak economy.

Removing the existing bond from the ballot and replacing it with another version requires two-thirds votes of each house. To put it on the ballot requires the governor’s signature from the governor. The initial deadline to act to make the ballot is June 26, Capitol staffers said, but that deadline is elastic.

The roller-coaster nature of the negotiations reflects the stormy history of the bond.

It originally was destined for the 2010 ballot, but was delayed in part because of fears that such a large bond would be rejected by voters in a weak economy. Two years ago, the measure was pushed back again, this time amid concerns that it would threaten the passage of sales and income tax increases sought by the governor. The taxes were approved.

Competing interests — including environmentalists, lawmakers, water agencies, contractors, farmers and others – negotiated the compromise to rewrite the original, complex bond, which critics said contained pork barrel projects that had been inserted to build support among interests around the state.

Both proposals contains funding for water storage (dams), groundwater storage, recycling, conservation, improvements in waste water treatment plants, fish and wildlife protections, coastal habitat safeguards, watershed protections and other projects.

California voters, although fickle when it comes to borrowing, approved a $5.4 billion water bond in 2006 as Proposition 84, part of a larger infrastructure project, and  approved some $11 billion in water projects during the previous decade.


*Ed’s Note: CORRECTS  original and recasts to show support also builds for Assembly bills, updates with measure scheduled Wednesday for Assembly floor consideration, and tightens.  

 


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