Opinion

Dan Walters: Big California water conflict coming in 2014

dwalters@sacbee.comSeptember 29, 2013 

There is simply nothing more important to California’s future than an adequate and dependable supply of clean water.

Accordingly, there is simply nothing more complex than its water politics, as we are beginning to see as Gov. Jerry Brown, legislators and water stakeholders attempt to write a 2014 bond issue.

The Legislature and Brown’s predecessor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, wrote an $11.1 billion water bond issue four years ago as an adjunct to building an “alternative conveyance” for water through, around or under the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

However, placing the bond issue before voters was postponed twice due to fears that it would be rejected due to its size and bits of pork that had nothing to do with water supply. It’s scheduled for the 2014 ballot, but that version is likely to be abandoned.

Smaller alternatives have been kicking around the Capitol, and it’s shaping up as a high-stakes battle, as a legislative hearing on the issue last week indicated. Legislators and the almost-countless water stakeholders jousted over minute details.

The Assembly Water, Parks and Wildlife Committee floated a $5 billion bond that would include additional funds for safe drinking water – a major issue for majority Democrats – and downsize other elements.

One of the earlier bond issue’s most controversial elements, a $3 billion allocation to begin pre-construction work on two new reservoirs and other surface and underground storage projects, was whittled down to just $1 billion, sparking an adverse reaction from their advocates.

Just before the Legislature adjourned for the year, Assembly leaders released a revised version, raising the bond to $6.5 billion and boosting storage money to $1.5 billion.

Most of the obvious pork is gone, but the revised bill still has money for California’s $250 million share of a bi-state agreement to remove some obsolescent power dams on the Klamath River belonging to billionaire Warren Buffett’s utility.

The Association of California Water Agencies, meanwhile, has proposed an $8.2 billion bond issue, while Sen. Lois Wolk, D-Davis, introduced a $6.5 billion bond measure that drops water storage funds to $1 billion and, unlike its rivals, keeps them under direct legislative control.

The reservoir money will continue to be a flashpoint next year, as will money seen as lubricant for the very controversial plan to bore two tunnels beneath the Delta for moving Sacramento River water to the head of the California Aqueduct near Tracy. Tunnel opponents will attempt to block any bond money that facilitates the project, thereby strangling it.

It’s anyone guess whether a bond can garner the two-thirds legislative vote to make the ballot. The Democrats’ supermajorities would mean little since water policy has almost nothing to do with party, and at least some Republican votes probably would be needed.

Call The Bee’s Dan Walters, (916) 321-1195. Back columns, www.sacbee.com/walters. Follow him on Twitter@WaltersBee.

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