Infrastructure & Environment

California Voters and the Water Spigot

California has just enacted a huge and enormously complicated package of bills meant to put an end to the state's longstanding water wars. But the...
by | November 30, 2009
 

California has just enacted a huge and enormously complicated package of bills meant to put an end to the state's longstanding water wars. But the fight is far from over, because voters will have to sign off on financing for the plan next November.

The legislation creates a new agency to oversee the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, which supplies water to about two-thirds of California residents. The new Delta Stewardship Council will supersede no fewer than 200 smaller agencies and districts that possessed some claim over the delta, and whose quarrels made its management all but impossible.

Legislators punted to the new council the question of whether to create a massive new canal to carry water from the northern part of the state to the south. Ratepayers in Southern California--both urban residents and farmers--would pay for such a canal. But the package as enacted already includes $11 billion in other projects, such as dams and reservoirs--more than double the size of any previous water bond in state history. The north-south canal was too politically risky a proposition to add in at a time when the cost of bonds and other debt service already constitutes nearly 7 percent of the entire state budget, and is expected to go higher.

Even so, the plan that cleared the legislature this fall may result in as much as $800 million annually in new interest payments. Taxpayer groups and unions, concerned about potential cuts to other programs that could result, are lining up against it. State Senator Dave Cogdill, a Republican sponsor of the package, concedes that the timing for putting an $11 billion question before voters is not propitious.

But there's a lot for different groups to like. The package, which took months to negotiate, drew unusual coalitions of support from water agencies, environmentalists and farmers that led to bipartisan passage. Environmentalists are happy about new protections for the delta and a 20-percent reduction in water use mandated for urban customers. Farmers will face more inspections, and their use of groundwater will be measured and monitored, but they have no specific conservation targets to meet.

The underlying goal of the legislation was to put into law the need to balance the various constituencies and the competing demands they place on a static water supply, rather than allowing policy directions to continue to shift with the changing political tides. "I think everybody got a cut out of this deal," says Aaron McLear, a spokesman for Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. "This is a package that leaders in this state have been trying to do for decades."

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