Lawmakers remain skeptical as governor links drought, water bonds

When Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger proclaimed a statewide drought in June and then urged passage of a $9.3 billion water bond, Democrats and environmental critics became suspicious.

They still are.

The Republican governor proposes a $9.3 billion dollar water bond for the November ballot, arguing that passage of such a measure would alleviate water problems.  

But Democrats and environmentalists say first things first: Stick to the original water bond measures voters approved two years ago.

The only way the measure could qualify for the ballot is if the Legislature puts it there. That would take a two-thirds vote from both legislative houses.

The governor’s water bond proposal for the 2008-09 budget, a joint bipartisan effort with U.S Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-California, includes $3.5 billion towards new water storage in projects such as underground water and possibly new dams, as well as $1.9 billion towards delta restoration.

“There is no question that California needs a long-term water management strategy,” said Sen. Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, the incoming Senate leader.

However, he notes that resources were obtained earlier through the 2006 passing of Proposition 84, in which California voters opted for $5.4 billion in water bonds.

“But first we must address our immediate needs – fixing the Delta’s fragile eco-system, our deteriorating levees and our stressed water supply. Californians approved billions of dollars in 2006 to fix these and other problems. We owe it to voters to put these funds to work now.”

Included within the original plans were $800 million specifically towards flood control projects, and 1.5 billion towards regional water management.

Senate Leader Don Perata, D-Oakland, issued a statement two weeks ago on the possibility of drafting a bond measure with Republicans and the governor, but similarly prioritized the fiscal alternatives of Proposition 84 before the proposal.  

“This latest bond proposal shares many similarities to one I put up for a vote last September, before the state encountered its current fiscal crisis,” said Perata. “I am open to doing a water bond. First, however, the state should spend the bond money voters approved in 2006, and then, we must pass a responsible budget that can pay for the debt service on a new bond.”

The two Senators, along with Sen. Michael Machado, D-Linden, initially sent a letter to the governor this past February regarding concerns over a proposed comprehensive water policy within his Strategic Growth Plan.

“Shocked” to learn about plans to create an “’alternative delta conveyance system,’ i.e. The Peripheral Canal,” the letter says “launching a peripheral canal without addressing ecosystem, water quality, structure and governance simply enflames old sectional passions and suspicions.”

In his efforts to deflect the proposal from a party issue, to a “people’s issue” issue, the Governor made the appeal that “it should be an issue that is facing farmers and business people. Ordinary people, everybody is suffering when we have no water.”

Pressure is not only increasing on certain legislators to make negotiations and approve the measure for the November ballot from a trickle down method, but through grassroots organizations as well.

Twenty-five buses filled with 1,000 farm workers and their families left Fresno at about 6:30 a.m. Wednesday to rally at the Capitol, determined to bring more water resources for the San Joaquin Valley. In conjunction with The California Latino Water Coalition, the workers rally sought to march in support of Governor Schwarzenegger’s water bond proposals before they start to directly call legislators in the incoming weeks.

“Let us all work together and go send that message to the legislatures to come up with a water bill once and for all to fix our systems, we owe it to the people of California, “ the Governor appealed to the crowd.

The basic question of whether the state is in a drought is a subject for hydrologists, said Jim Metropulos of the Sierra Club.

  "Last year we did have low rainfall on top of the previous year which had near record low levels for rainfall," Metropulos said. "The governor calling it a drought, however, carries no legal significance under California law. It's interesting though that he calls  a drought, and then a couple of weeks later, he calls for a new water bond."

 However, Metropulos, senior advocate of Sierra Club California, is still not convinced that this will entirely benefit everyone statewide. "Something like a Temperance Flat Reservoir will only supply farmers in large agriculture fields in the Central Valley. Only a few will benefit from this."

“We’re not supportive, and we also believe in the fact that there are over $800 million dollars in previous bonds available, many from Proposition 84, 50, and IE. We also don’t support new dams or surface storage to be paid for by bonds; there is no short term or near term advantage on water supply reliability for California."

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