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Water negotiations moving ahead in Capitol

Negotiations over a massive overhaul of California's water system picked up steam in the Capitol amid an array of meetings that included a closed-door briefing for lawmakers by the Schwarzenegger administration's top water officials.

A 14-member, two-house conference committee, chaired by Senate Leader Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, is scheduled to begin meeting Tuesday to actually draw up the water plan. 

The final proposal, an historic attempt to achieve a compromise in the state's seemingly endless water wars, is intended to be completed by the end of this week, with floor votes next week, said sources in both houses and participants in the discussions. The lawmakers are likely to work through the weekend.

They face a ticking clock: The Legislature adjourns for the year on Sept. 11.

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.

The Legislature's Latino Caucus favors 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.

Earlier,  a $9.8 billion water package was introduced but it has not gone on the ballot.

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.

A sticking point in the water discussions was the creation of the two-house conference committee to write the legislation. The size of the committee — 14 members, with eight Deomcrats and six Republicans — is unusual; conference committees typically have six members. The Senate members will include Steinberg, Senate Majority Leader Dean Florez, D-Bakersfield, Sen. Alex Padilla, D- Pacoima; Sen. Fran Pavley, D- Agoura Hills; Sen. Dave Cogdill, R- Modesto; Sen. Sam Aanestad, R-Grass Valley; and Sen. Bob Huff, R- Diamond Bar. 

The Assembly members are likely to include Jean Fuller, R-Bakersfield; Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael; and Anna Caballero, D-Salinas, although the full roster was not immediately announced.


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