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Water plan seen as prelude to canal

Two powerful California water agencies, the Westlands Water District in the Central Valley and the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, support a legislative water compromise in part because they believe it brings the Peripheral Canal closer to reality.

The agencies themselves say they would pay for the huge project, using the money from the rate increases paid by their customers. 

"All the agencies will share the cost of conveyance," said MWD's Jeff Kightlinger, which he said could cost between $6 billion and $12 billion. He testified before a legislative hearing on the water proposal. Rate hikes could total 10 percent to 12 percent for urban and industrial users, and perhaps 50 percent for agricultural customers, he said. General agreeement has been reached among the water agencies that a canal is needed, he added.

But environmentalists who support the legislation authored by Sen. Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, said the bill does not give a green-light to construction of the canal, or any other capital projects. The bill, which can be viewed here,  focuses on governance of the delta, environmental safeguards, water supply reliability and other issues. Funding for those issues, perhaps in the $9 billion range, will be addressed separately, he said. 

"The bill does not authorize a canal," Ann Notthoff of the Natural Resources Defense Council testified Monday at a legislative hearing.

The divergence reflects the fragile nature of the group supporting the water-reform package, which includes environmentalists and others long opposed to a canal, or conveyance. Whether or not the bill actually eases the possibility of a canal is apparently still a matter of dispute among some coalition members.

Steimberg, a mediator by profession, acknowledged that it had been a challenge to hammer out an agreement between the parties.

 "We need to keep the coalition together," he said in a separate interview. At the hearing, representives of the NRDC, the Environmental Defense Fund, the water agencies and the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission spoke in favor of the bill. 

The fact that both water agencies, among the most powerful political players in state water issues, back the bill reflects their belief that the legislation assists them in their ultimate goal. The bill provides "a clear path to conveyance," said lobbyist Ed Manning, representing Westlands. "It's a heck of a lot better than the status quo."

Steinberg's SB 1 7x, the product of months of negotiations, seeks to provide environmental protections for the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta while assuring stable water deliveries for the central and southern parts of the state.

It does not contain the Peripheral Canal, nor does it contain any of three above-ground storage projects associated with the negotiations – Temperance Flat near Fresno and Sites in Colusa County, and raising the level at Los Vaqueros Reservoir in Contra Costa County.

But analyses by MWD and Westlands suggest that language deep in the 116-page bill helps expedite development of the canal over time – a project already authorized in state law. The state has begun studying the environmental impacts of canal, although it has not settled on whether the channel should go through or around the delta.

The canal is a flashpoint in the debate over California water policy. The multibillion-dollar canal – rejected by voters in 1982 – would move water from the Sacramento River around the delta and into the California Aqueduct. One goal is to get more water to the south without having huge pumps pull it out of the delta, an action that damages the fisheries and has drawn court rulings. Opponents believe the canal could choke off water to the delta, worsening the environmental hazard.

Steinberg has proposed a top-to-bottom overhaul of the management of the delta by setting up a new panel to decide critical  policy, expand the power of California's water-use enforcers and create the position of Delta Watermaster to ride herd over the delta protections. It establishes a policy that protecting the environment and assuring reliable water supplies are of equal importance – a finding that is a departure from the past.

It would set up an independent scientific panel to examine the delta's needs. It includes fines of up to $5,000 per day for illegal diversions of water. It authorizes the State Water Resources Control Board to initiate investigations on its own, rather than in response to complaints, and it requires the state to put into effect an aggressive groundwater management program.  

The delta is a vast estuary east of San Francisco through which flows most of California's drinking and agricultural water. The delta, fed by the state's major rivers, is crisscrossed by aging, fragile levees and sloughs. Powerful pumps at the southern edge of the delta pull water into the California Aqueduct and move it to central and southern California. Sustaining the health of the delta — balancing the needs for water with environmental protections — represents the crux of the debate over California's water future.

The legislation would repeal the California Bay-Delta Authority Act, currently the principal statute governing the delta, and shifts key authority to a seven-member Delta Stewardship Council that would decide delta policy. The Council would be an independent state agency and have authority over delta development.

The council also would have a say-so over the Peripheral Canal, a regulatory hurdle that does not exist in current law. But the council also would be required to follow the proposed statute, which says delta policy "should improve the water conveyance system and expand statewide water storage" and provide a "reliable water supply."

"Does it specifically say it will authorize a Peripheral Canal? No. But it clears a path for the canal" said one water agency representative.

The bill also contains stringent conservation and groundwater management programs, details how delta-area local governments will participate in the management of the delta. It includes conservation requiring a per capita, 20 percent cut in water use by 2020. The water districts' participation in the program is voluntary, although districts face losses in funding if they don't participate.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has asked lawmakers to consider a water package that would get more water to the central and southern parts of the state, ensure environmental protections for the delta and provide long-term storage to protect against drought.

Water has long prompted the fiercest political fights in the Capitol, traditionally with lawmakers from the rain-rich north opposing efforts to transfer water southward. But several sources say the north-south split is not dominating the latest discussions. The most sensitive areas are funding and the creation of the Stewardship Council.

The funding piece of the proposal is expected to be heard at a hearing later this week.

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