Water projects on tap

The most fundamental changes in four decades in California’s water system loom in the Capitol. They are prompted by lawmakers’ exasperation at years of bureaucratic inaction and by voters’ willingness to borrow billions of dollars to pay for new projects. There’s more in the mix: Lawmakers’ desire to put their names on bills that will push big-ticket water projects forward.

Democrats and Republicans alike say nothing is decided and everything is on the table. That includes dams, reservoirs, levees, groundwater storage, conservation, land-use changes and pipelines. It includes a huge canal to move more Northern California water to the south. It includes repairing, somehow, the San Joaquin-Sacramento River Delta east of San Francisco, through which 80 percent of California’s drinking water flows by 19th century levees. It includes $5.38 billion from Proposition 84 bond funds for five-dozen projects, large and small, plus funds from earlier measures. There are more than 380 water-related bills before lawmakers.

“The one thing that strikes me as convincingly different from when I started dealing with water issues 30 years ago is that for the first time none of the interest groups are happy with the situation in the Delta. That is quite remarkable,” said Phil Isenberg, a Sacramento lobbyist and former legislator picked by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to head up a blue-ribbon advisory group for Delta Vision. “I know of no group at all who believes that the ecosystem in the Delta is responding well, and that’s a big, big change.”

Also a change is unhappiness with CALFED, which began life in the 1990s as a discussion, advisory and planning group to resolve Delta water problems. It did this by providing a forum for varied interests–“stakeholders” in the jargon of government–that included government regulators, environmentalists, local officials and others, then later became enshrined in statute as a formal structure in government. CALFED, a collaboration of two-dozen government agencies, writes reports, coordinates state-federal grants for water programs, engages in long-term planning and provides hard scientific research. But as time passed, critics say, little got done–except interminable discussion. “What you’re really seeing here is a lot of frustration in the Legislature. Nothing has happened,” said a Capitol water specialist, a Democrat.

“CALFED was a well-intentioned effort for everyone to get better together,” said Jonas Minton, water-policy adviser to the Planning and Conservation League. “Unfortunately, some of its basic flaws resulted in everyone getting worse together.

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