Water politics ripple through Capitol

After months of budget wrangling, lawmakers are preparing to make water policy a central focus of the final month of this year’s legislative session.

How does the state get more water from the north to the south while protecting the delta east of San Francisco, the vast, fragile estuary through which most of California’s water flows? Can it do both? Can lawmakers satisfy farmers, environmentalists and water districts?

Apparently, they’re going to try.

In the background looms the possibility of a 2010 bond package or a system of fees to help finance the projects. And there is a growing sense among Capitol players that Gov. Schwarzenegger wants to build a canal – and dams- for his political legacy.

“We’re operating a system that was designed in the middle of the 20th century before we cared about fish, and we’re letting the fish drive the system. Our system can’t do for the environment what modern policy asks us to do,” said Timothy Quinn of the Association of California Water Agencies.  

As the Legislature prepares to pull together a water plan, the political forces are taking shape, with the governor, farmers and many public water agencies favoring options up to and including the construction of reservoirs and a canal of historic proportions. Many – but not all – environmentalists oppose the canal. Massive new capital projects have drawn fierce opposition, and the closer to the delta the tougher the opposition. Indeed, the delta’s strongest supporters believe they are being blocked from participating in a key committee that will draft the new plan – a contention that others reject.

But however divergent the views, there is a sense that a climax approaches in California’s water debate.

“I do think we are helped by the growing awareness within the Legislature and the public that we just can’t wait. Twenty-five years of benign neglect has not served the delta well,” said Sen. Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto. “For environmentalists, the delta has gone to hell in a hand-basket, and for two-thirds of the state that depends on the delta for its water, that supply is at risk. All of this has created a greater sense of urgency.”

Even more than a canal, the possibility of new dams is anathema to environmentalists.

“We have not seen a need for above-ground storage. There are a lot of things we can be doing to save and better manage the water we have,” said the Sierra Club’s Jim Metropulos. “Just the simple things, such as  doing conservation.”

Partisans in the water discussions say the plan is to form a two-conference committee to craft legislation and have policy committees in both houses hold hearings across the state. The goal is to produce a package by mid-September.

But that first step, setting up the two-house conference committee, already faces obstacles.

The Assembly members – Republican Jean Fuller of Bakersfield, and Democrats Jared Huffman of San Rafael and Anna Caballero of Salinas – reportedly have been chosen.

 But on the Senate side, three Democrats –Simitian, Lois Wolk of Davis and Fran Pavley of Santa  Monica – claim primacy and special interest in water issues, and all want on the committee. The rules of the Legislature, often elastic, limit the Senate’s three conferees to two Democrats and a Republican — and thus far Senate Leader Darrell Steinberg has not made the picks.

 A proposal to expand the committee to 10 members, similar to the recent budget conference committee, died quickly.

And so far, no lawmaker with deep delta roots is on the conference committee, fueling suspicions that the delta is being short-changed in order to push through a massive construction program.

“Whatever the discussion, whatever project is proposed, the most important issue is whether these proposals will improve the health of the delta,” said Wolk, whose 5th Senate District touches on the delta from Tracy to Stockton to Walnut Grove. “You’re talking about five counties, a half-million people and 27 cities. They cannot be ignored. They have to have a voice at the table….I would like to be on that committee.”

Conference committees typically deal with fiscal issues, but there are exceptions, such as the 1990s committees that deregulated California’s workers compensation insurance and electricity markets.

In both cases, the committees wrote legislation that later proved deeply flawed; the state’s electricity market meltdown alone cost the state an estimated $50 billion. There are worries in both houses of the Capitol that a conference committee on water, with billions of dollars at stake, may write risky policy with unintended consequences and be unduly pressured by powerful interests.

The first issue is Gov. Schwarzenegger’s position –stated publicly — favoring  a peripheral canal and his assertion that he can, on his own authority, order the project. “He wants a legacy, a monument after he’s gone, something that will be here 20 years from now,” said one Capitol staffer, a critic of the proposed canal. The expectation in the Capitol is that construction of a canal could begin in 2011 – a year after Schwarzenegger leaves office.

The second is governance. One proposal – far from complete — is the creation of an independent water commission, or stewardship commission, that would have broad powers over deciding the timing and placement of major water projects and develop long-term delta policy in the future, without going to voters for approval. If created, the panel would immediately rank among the most powerful institutions in the state.

“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,” said Assemblyman Jared Hufman, D-San Rafael.

Another issue is the possibility of a ballot initiative. 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.
Delta partisans are deeply suspicious of the Capitol and water discussions. One widely held belief is that the state already has begun initial excavation of a peripheral canal. It hasn’t, but it has done surveying and intends to begin drilling into the delta bottom at selected sites to gather information.

A peripheral canal was approved by the Legislature and governor as SB 200, but voters rejected it in a statewide referendum in 1982, in part because of opposition from northern water interests and environmentalists. The 44-mile-long canal, which would have started at Hood and skirted the eastern de
lta southward to Tracy, would have been a concrete-lined ditch about as wide as a 12-lane freeway.
In the latest plans, a western peripheral canal would go south from Sacramento to near the California Aqueduct, an eastern canal would start south of Sacramento to the same location, and a “through-delta” canal would follow a north-south path through the delta. 

The newer versions of the canal are much larger – several accounts described it as having a 1,300-foot right-of-way – wider than the length of four football fields.

 The Contra Costa Water District, or CCWD, is the only water agency in the state that gets all of its water from the delta. It envisions the “through-delta option” as an underground pipe below the bed of the delta that would carry water north to south without disrupting the upper environment. The pipe also would be seismically safer than a surface aqueduct.

It also notes that the delta already is fragile and in need of water to sustain the immediate needs of humans and wildlife. To take water destined for the delta and divert it would harm the estuary even more.

Environmentalists generally are opposed to launching new capital projects that would take decades to complete, dramatically disrupt the river and delta ecosystems and cost tens of billions of dollars.

Instead, they urge conservation, groundwater storage and improvements in existing water systems to cut leakage and evaporation. They note that court rulings already protect the San Joqaquin-Sacramento River Delta, and that huge public works projects could be bottled up for years by the courts, apart from the construction time.

There are divisions within the environmental community, however. The Nature Conservancy has tacitly endorsed the notion of a peripheral canal, and others are giving it serious consideration. The Nature Conservancy, however, only backs the canal if the governance piece is in place.

 “Our scientific analysis has led us to conclude that, short of ending water exports from the Delta, a peripheral canal that meets the needs of fish and wildlife is the next best option. … Our support of the concept, however, is predicated on a governance structure that ensures operation of the canal in a manner that protects the habitat and wildlife of the Delta,” the Nature Conservancy’s Anthony Saracino wrote on the group’s web site.

In the delta, CCWD, which has studied the possibilities of a canal extensively, is watching the developments closely. CCWD’s representatives have frequented the Capitol, talking to legislators and their staffs.

“We’ve got 550,000 customers who drink delta water every day, so we need to focus on things that will improve water quality. Diverting it to other areas will reduce that. We don’t like that,” CCWD spoksesman Jeff Weir said.

Ed. Note: This story corrects an earlier version to delete the reference to L.A. in the final quote.

Want to see more stories like this? Sign up for The Roundup, the free daily newsletter about California politics from the editors of Capitol Weekly. Stay up to date on the news you need to know.

Sign up below, then look for a confirmation email in your inbox.


Support for Capitol Weekly is Provided by: