Water debate dammed

The Special Session debate over California’s water system is zeroing on the governor’s revised proposal for the construction of some $10 billion worth of new dams and reservoir expansion, and a payment scheme that would lock in funding for the projects in perpetuity, say some parties to the negotiations. Thus far, there are no signs of an agreement.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s revised plan, which he announced 12 days ago, not only added $3.5 billion to his earlier proposal–pushing the state’s end of the tab to more than $9 billion–but also included a provision for a “continuous appropriation” that would assure financing through new administrations. “That may work if the administration is Arnold Schwarzenegger and Lester Snow, but what if the administration is Jerry Brown and some enviro? Will it work?” said the Sierra Club’s Jim Metropulos. The Sierra Club, as other environmental groups, opposes construction of vast water works in favor of better groundwater management, recycling and stringent conservation.

The governor’s office noted that an agreement has not yet been reached, but “negotiations are going very well,” said Schwarzenegger spokesman Aaron McLear. “Those who are involved in the solution are saying positive things.” McLear said that the Special Session is still young, and that support for the proposal is building.

The governor’s plan–supported by U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein–includes $1 billion for conservation and local water projects and nearly $2 billion for Delta restoration. The biggest piece, $5.1 billion, would go for three projects: two new dams and the expansion of the 100,000-acre-foot Los Vaqueros Reservoir northeast of San Francisco. Under the governor’s plan, the reservoir could be expanded up to 275,000 acre-feet at a cost of $600 million to $800 million. The funding, which comes from voter-approved bonds, limits the state’s cost to 50 percent of the projects, which means the total cost of the projects is double the amount listed in the legislation.

Officials from Contra Costa Water District, which operates Los Vaqueros, intend to challenge that 50-50 match at an October 4 hearing of the Senate Natural Resources Committee. They argue that an expanded Los Vaqueros is beneficial to others outside their district, and that others should help bear the cost.
The governor’s proposal, which if approved would face voters on February 5, also gives broad powers to the head of the Water Resources Department and to the resources secretary to direct billions of dollars in funding and development–too much power, critics contend. “It’s unprecedented. This is a political decision. It would be unique in the history of the state for an unelected bureaucrat to write a check for $5 billion,” said one legislative staffer familiar with the discussions.

Supporters of the governor’s proposal sharply disagree. They say his plan does indeed have fiscal controls, and that it places responsibility on local water agencies to demonstrate their fiscal capacity and need for projects. Only then, after that capacity has been established, does the state pony up the money.

At issue, too, is who rules? The Republican governor sees his plan as integral pieces of the State Water Project, the statewide system that moves water from the rainy north to the arid south and is administered by state water chiefs. A separate, $5.4 billion proposal by Senate leader Don Perata, while not ruling out new construction, sees regional water agencies as the controlling forces who decide what they want to build and for how much. It places a high priority on conservation and recycling.

“That’s part of the reason for [Perata’s] regional approach,” said Phil Isenberg, who heads a high-level group advising the governor on water policy. “The other part is that there is a general rule in California water politics that everyone is in favor of building things where they might benefit, as long as they don’t have to pay very much to get the benefit. What Perata is doing, very intelligently in my view, is calling their bluff. He’s saying, ‘Let’s earmark money for regional projects where there is a matching cost, and see who is out the for real.'”

Isenberg noted that the state’s own water-policy guide, the DWR’s 2005 State Water Plan, is supportive of a regionalized system.

Too, the governor has publicly called for consideration of a structure to convey water from the north to the south–potentially, a Peripheral Canal. The 43-mile canal, approved by the Legislature but rejected by voters in a 1982 referendum, would take water from the Sacramento River and move it around the edge of the Delta to the aqueduct. His proposal does not identify the cost, but leaves the door open to finding ways to get the money.

The dispute over water is perhaps the longest, most complex policy and political debate that the state has faced, with roots that go deeper even than the discussion over health care. But even in its complexity, the basic issues are straightforward.

Three-fourths of the rain falls in Northern California–some 100 inches a year in parts–but most of the people live in the south. Much of the state’s drinking water flows through the San Joaquin-Sacramento Delta east of San Francisco. The question is how to move more water southward through the Delta without damaging that area’s fragile ecosystem?

Currently, water is pumped from the Delta to the California Aqueduct, which takes water to Central and Southern California. Last month, the pumping was halted temporarily by court order because of fishery damage. That action may have prompted the revision of the governor’s proposal, which for the first time included the Los Vaqueros expansion. Los Vaqueros has long been identified by state and regional water authorities, as well as local residents in a 2004 advisory vote, as a worthy project, but it’s appearance in the governor’s proposal came as a surprise.

To environmentalists, the expansion of the reservoir is more palatable than the building of new dams at Temperance Flat east of Lake Millerton in the Fresno-Madera area, or at Sytes in the northern Sacramento Valley near Glenn-Colusa.

The reservoir expansion is already on track for permits–a major factor in water works. The dams, even if approved by voters, likely wouldn’t begin construction until after the current governor leaves office, and even the feasibility studies are two years away.

The court ruling casts attention “on projects that can be built and ready to go, that are feasible and that provide fishery benefits,” said Patty Friesen, a spokeswoman for the Contra Costa Water District, which serves 550,000 customers and obtains 100 percent of its water from the Delta. “It is the farthest along of the storage projects.”

During the past few days, a new possibility was added to the mix: a potential executive order from the governor. Schwarzenegger, just weeks after the Legislature last year approved a landmark greenhouse-gas emissions-law, issued an executive order that dramatically affected the way that law was put into effect. Could he issue a similar order on water?

“I heard that possibility a couple of days ago, but what would such an order be? He can issue an order, but he can’t order the funding. He needs money,” said one participant.

In the end, money for conservation, habitat replenishment, recycling and environmental protections are good, but they don’t offset the problem to environmentalists of the dams–the core of their opposition.

“Those are good things, but we can’t take the good with the bad. The governor can’t sweeten up this bill with more money for conservation and restoration and then expect us to swallow $5.1 billion for new dams,” Metropulos said.

Contact John Howard at

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