Union politics, Latino clout entwined in water battle

Latinos’ political clout has emerged as a driving force in the political battle over overhauling California’s water system, with a coalition of statewide officials linking with the Legislature’s Latino Caucus to attempt to force change.

“They’ve always had the clout, they just haven’t exercised it,” said Mario Santoyo, a director and adviser to the California Latino Water Coalition and an executive at the Friant Water Authority. They want a water plan that includes a canal through or around the delta east of San Francisco, reservoirs, desalination, recycling, delta environmental protections, and more water for Central and Southern California. And more.

“But what really brought them to the table this time was the crisis, the drought, in the Central Valley that has left hundreds of thousands of acres fallow. There are Latinos in the bread lines, there are Latinos in the unemployment lines,” Santoyo said.

Not everyone is on board. A national union coalition has poured $1 million into a newly formed committee of the United Farm Workers, specifically to oppose any water package that emerges from the Legislature in the final week of the session.

The donation stunned many in the Latino community, and reportedly angered the governor who has placed water as his own top priority.

Less than 24 hours later, Gov. Schwarzenegger vetoed the UFW’s top legislative priority, SB 789 by Senate Leader Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, that would have made it easier for the UFW to sign up new members. Schwarzenegger said the bill violated worker’s rights to secret-ballot elections. The union has said the current system allows employers to draw out the election time table and intimidate workers.

On Wednesday, Assemblywoman Anna Caballero, D-Salinas, offered a $12 billion plan that included most of the programs sought by the Latino coalitions, as well as by hundreds of public water agencies across the state.

The question is not why Latinos suddenly have emerged with political clout in the water fight, but why not?

“Why not, given the demographics and the significant presence that Latinos have, the impact on industry, the presence throughout the state, the statewide importance of water not just on rural California but on urban areas,” said Sen. Gil Cedillo, D-Los Angeles. “Latinos are in all these communities and it is wholly appropriate that they be included in the process and the leadership.”

The $1 million donation came from a group called Change to Win, a national labor coalition that includes the Service Employees International Union, the Teamsters, the farm workers union and others. The transaction was reported Tuesday in financial disclosure reports at the secretary of state’s office.

With the Legislature heading into a Sept. 11 adjournment, the water issue is coming to a boil in the Capitol.

Cedillo’s Latino Caucus has been supportive of the water projects, which include proposals to build two reservoirs and a canal through or around the delta east of San Francisco. Among the strongest supporters of the projects is the construction industry, which would service the vast public works projects.

A special two-house conference committee is poised to begin deliberations on a package of bills that include the key elements of the water overhaul, including a powerful new commission to run the system, capital projects up to and including the dams and canals, and new environmental protections for the delta.

Among the panel’s 14 members are four Latinos – Sens. Dean Florez, D-Shafter and Alex Padilla, D-Pacoima and Assemblymembers Jose Solorio, D-Santa Ana and Anna Caballero, D-Salinas.

 The final plan has yet to be crafted, but it is shaping up as an historic attempt to achieve a compromise in the state’s seemingly endless water wars.

 Ultimately, the plan is envisioned as providing environmental protections to the delta east of San Francisco, a canal through or around the delta to move more Northern California water to the south, new storage structures, perhaps even reservoirs, and major conservation programs.

Environmentalists are opposed to the reservoirs, but the Schwarzenegger administration and the construction industry view them favorably. Fishing interests and delta partisans oppose any plan that does not contain ironclad environmental protections for the delta, and environmentalists support conservation programs. Southern California water interests, Central Valley farmers and hundreds of public water agencies tend to favor construction of the capital projects. There has been limited environmental support for the canal, but strong support for conservation.

They favor a water system overhaul that includes a canal and new construction – adding a new political dimension to the negotiations. The active participation of the Latino Caucus is a departure from earlier years. Agreement on financing for the programs remains elusive.

There may be a multibillion-dollar bond package requiring voter approval, a mechanism called “continuous appropriation” in which money automatically is directed to the water system year-by-year and a system in which big customers – the water and irrigation districts – are charged fees on a sliding scale. The dollars involved are huge: Estimates vary wildly, but a canal alone could cost $5 billion to $10 billion, or more, and reservoirs carry similar price tags.

A poll released by EMC Research showed nearly half of those surveyed opposed bonds for new reservoirs, and perhaps a third voice opposition to the construction of a canal. The survey was conducted by telephone Aug. 23-27 of 800 people. The margin of error is plus or minus 3.45 percent. The poll was commissioned by Restore the Delta, an environmental group.

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