Water plan in print, draws immediate fire

The first outline of a plan to overhaul California’s water system includes a dramatic boost in conservation, an expansion of water officials’ authority, a fee-based financing scheme and the potential for major new water projects that include canals through or around the delta east of San Francisco.

The package of five bills, all authored by Democrats, are scheduled to go before a joint Senate-Assembly policy committee for information hearings beginning Aug. 18. But the actual legislation is likely to be drawn up by a two-house conference committee. The Senate membership of that committee has yet to be determined.

The Capitol has been marked by political disputes over water for generations, with partisans often divided geographically as the north vs. the south, and philosophically between environmentalists and water district officials. But those traditional lines have been blurred in recent years, in part because the Schwarzenegger administration supports options that include major capital construction projects.

The governor also believes he has the authority to order the projects on his own – a contention that plays an increasing, behind-the-scenes role in the water debate.

So far, no lawmaker with deep delta roots has been named to the conference committee, fueling Capitol suspicions that the delta is being short-changed in order to push through a massive construction program. A coalition of delta water interests and environmentalists immediately denounced the proposals as costly and damaging to the environment.

The potential for massive capital projects has drawn the most attention, but the issue of governance just as controversial, say partisans on both sides.

The legislation proposes the creation of a commission, with gubernatorial and legislative appointees, that would have wide authority over water issues, including construction projects, long-term policy and financing.

“The whole idea is to recognize that the delta is broken and we need to create new governance, a science-based plan that considers water supplies and a healthy ecosystem. And we need to do it in a way that works for the delta community,” Assemblyman Jared Hufman, D-San Rafael, said earlier.

Although it is not part of the package, there is the possibility of a 2010 ballot initiative to finance, at least in part, some water projects.
Political strategist Joe Caves, who has successfully pushed environmental ballot measures in the past, is teaming up with Jim Earp, executive director of the Alliance for Jobs, an infrastructure construction advocacy group that sees the capital projects as a major economic shot in the arm.

“It was just to position ourselves and to move forward if the climate was favorable,” said Earp, who noted that lawmakers have worked on the issue intensively during the past year. “The Legislature has really hashed through a lot this, although there do seem to be more players involved this time around.” In the end, he said, “it’s my sense that the leadership is just going to make the call.”

Caves said no decision has been made on whether to go to the ballot.

“Our goal is not to do this as an initiative, but to work with the Legislature to put together a comprehensive package,” Caves said.

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