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Economic turmoil derails water plan

A long-simmering effort to craft an omnibus state water package in the Legislature is being put on hold because of the faltering economy and deep-seated disagreements between rival interests.

But players in the on-again, off-again negotiations remain hopeful, in part because an agreement nearly was reached earlier in the year before it got snared in budget politics, in part because new Senate Leader Darrell Steinberg of Sacramento, a mediator by profession, has publicly made water a top priority.

And pushing the discussions is the drought outlook.

“The economy and the severity of the drought, the wildfires and everything else: It’s frustrating for many of us that we haven’t done anything in the way of infrastructure before now, and those things just heighten the criticality,” said Senate GOP Leader David Cogdill of Fresno. “The infrastructure will take a couple of decades, and we want to get started.”

Rarely in the state’s history is a need for a comprehensive, workable water plan greater than it is now.

The state intends to cut water deliveries to cities and farms by 85 percent for the upcoming water year – the lowest since the drought of 1976-77, and less than half of the current deliveries. Delivery projections can change – three weeks of rain would make a dramatic difference – but water agencies are bracing for potential rationing. Reservoirs are at their lowest level in more than 30 years.

“The only thing that will solve our problem is a comprehensive package, with all the pieces working simultaneously,” said Timothy Quinn, executive director of the Association of California Water Agencies. Recycling, desalination, flood control, storage – all belong in the mix, and the public believes they are worth the cost, he added.

“The big projects were approved during the Great Depression. ACWA did polling, and even though the voters recognized that the economy was weakening, they recognized that the water system was in crisis and needed to be improved,” Quinn said.

Water districts, local officials, lobbyists and others are closely watching the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, the huge water wholesaler that serves two dozen counties and half the state’s population.  The MWD is considering what it describes as an “allocation plan” – rationing – to its member counties and rate increases, which in turn likely will be passed on to local customers.
If that happens, the pressure on the Legislature to act will increase. Environmentalists sense that pressure, too, but whether it will push legislators in the direction of dam construction.

“We need to change some fundamental things about water policy before we throw money at large infrastructure projects,” said Jim Metropulos, a water specialist for the Sierra Club, which opposes new dam construction. He noted that the governor, in his public appearances, “is not missing an opportunity to talk about his water bond,” referring to the unsuccessful $9.3 billion proposal that Schwarzenegger unveiled in July but was rejected just weeks later.

In the Capitol, the fundamental division is over the construction of reservoirs. For environmentalists, dams are anathema. “In its California Water Plan, the state says the most possible amount of water at the cheapest cost is conservation. That’s not me saying it; that’s the state,” Metropulos noted.

Generally, reservoirs are sought by Republicans as a necessary means to capture water, but opposed by Democrats as costly and inefficient. But there other differences, too, including the best way to restore and protect the delta east of San Francisco, through which most of California’s drinking water flows. Somehow, those opposing views have to be reconciled.

“The only thing that will solve our problem is a comprehensive package, with all the pieces working simultaneously,” said Timothy Quinn, executive director of the Association of California Water Agencies. Recycling, desalination, flood control, storage – all belong in the mix, and the public believes they are worth the cost, he added.

“The big projects were approved during the Great Depression. ACWA did polling, and even though the voters recognized that the economy was weakening, they recognized that the water system was in crisis and needed to be improved,” Quinn said.

The sprawling Central Valley Project and the Colorado River Aqueduct, for example, were both approved and financed during the Depression, while the jewel of the state’s water system, the State Water Project, was approved in November 1960 in the midst of a recession.

The Republican governor, backed by U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a conservative Democrat, proposed a $9.3 billion package that included conservation and watershed protections, flood control projects, two reservoirs, groundwater protections, species protections, and coastal and inland water-quality programs. The package died – for environmentalists and many Democrats the breaking point was the pair of reservoirs, and for some Republicans, it was the price tag.

There also was – and still is – uncertainty over whether the general obligation bond issue could go before voters in 2009. But the state Elections Code does appear to allow such a bond issue on the ballot – in June, for example – and officials note that a general obligation bond went before voters in a 1993 special election.

Feinstein, a popular California politician who supports reservoirs and is often viewed suspiciously by environmentalists, later upbraided the Legislature for the water plan’s failure. “The last major addition to California’s water system was in the 1960s,” Feinstein noted in August at a Press Club luncheon. “Our state had 16 million people then. We have 38 million now, and we have the same water infrastructure.”

The governor’s proposal remains a starting point for new discussions, say supporters and critics alike.

But Feinstein’s influence on the Legislature is marginal, at best. The real drivers of legislative policy come from the leadership.
“Senator Steinberg and I have talked about this, and we will try to do something next year. Right now, we are embroiled in the budget,” Cogdill said.

“The issue,” he added, “certainly hasn’t gone away.”


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