SACRAMENTO — It took long months of delicate negotiations — and the last-minute deletion of a project dear to the heart of the state's most powerful legislator — for lawmakers to craft what could turn out to be one of the most pivotal water deals in state history.
Now comes the hard part: The plan's proponents must convince a debt-weary, politician-leery electorate that it's a deal worth what could be a $25 billion-plus price tag overall.
"We're done with part one," Assembly Speaker Karen Bass, D-Los Angeles, said Wednesday. "Part two is we need to take the message out (of Sacramento). ... First and foremost, we have to begin by educating voters about water."
Bass' remarks came a few hours after legislators had staggered through an all-night session that ended with bipartisan support for a five-bill package of reforms to California's antiquated water system.
The bills were sent to Gov. Schwarzenegger, who effusively praised them.
"This is without any doubt the most comprehensive water infrastructure package ... in the history of California," he said.
The package's parts range from new ways of protecting the fragile ecosystem of the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta to keeping track of how much water is pumped from underground sources.
They include asking voters to approve — probably one year from now — an $11.1 billion bond measure that would pay for recycling, drought relief, water storage and waste-water treatment programs.
What the final package did not include was $10 million to build a tolerance center in Sacramento. Construction of the center has long been championed by Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, and he acknowledged that he had included the provision in the bond bill.
The earmark sparked a flap in both legislative houses. When it became clear the controversy was delaying approval of the bond measure in the Assembly, Steinberg agreed to drop the idea.
Legislative leaders acknowledged that further improving the bond measure's chances with voters will take a Herculean effort.
"We need to spend a tremendous amount of time doing the education to break down the historic mistrust and misperceptions that has been the fundamental reason it's taken half a century to make the advancements that we made," Bass said.
Steinberg noted that voters surprised pundits and pollsters a year ago by approving a $10 billion bond proposal to build a high-speed rail system.
"Voters had a forward vision, and they said despite the difficult economic times that they wanted to point toward the future," he said, "and I think with the right campaign, the right education, the right message, that they will do the same again."
But opposition to the high-speed rail measure was scattered and under-financed.
When it comes to the water bond, a potentially formidable odd-fellows coalition could form, consisting of government unions, anti-tax groups, some environmental groups, and some local water and sewage agencies.
The politically potent and financially well-heeled unions fear that committing more of the state's financial resources, nearly dried up, to water will mean less money for the state payroll. They also contend that individual water projects should be paid for by those who directly benefit from them.
In a letter to lawmakers Monday, the lobbyist for the 700,000-member Service Employees International Union California said it was unacceptable to cut education and social service programs to pay the debt that will be incurred by the water bonds.
Anti-tax groups fear the bonds will increase the state's debt too much; some local agencies say the reforms provide benefits to those outside their boundaries while sticking their customers with the bills, and some environmental groups oppose elements of the plan that could lead to construction of dams and a canal through the delta.
"The water package that passed in the dead of night epitomizes the dysfunction that has gripped our legislative process," said Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla, campaign director for Restore the Delta, in a statement. "The package lost any semblance of rational debate and turned into a pork festival."
Jason Dickerson of the nonpartisan legislative analyst's office estimated that the annual principal and interest on the water bonds could range from $724.7 million to $809.3 million.
But the governor's spokesman Aaron McLear said because the proposal requires no more than half the bonds be sold before 2015, much of the current public works bond debts will be paid off before the water bonds begin to take effect.
"It's not going to take away money from any of our other priorities," McLear said.