Infrastructure & Environment

Future of California Water Supply Up to Voters

by | August 14, 2014
 

ELECTION 2014: This article is part of our coverage of ballot measures to watch.

By Jeremy B. White

California voters will be asked to authorize $7.5 billion to bolster the state's water supply, infrastructure and ecosystems in November, as lawmakers and Gov. Jerry Brown on Wednesday struck a long-sought deal to move a new water bond to the ballot.

An extraordinary drought that has strained California's water supply spurred a concerted push for a new water bond. Lawmakers moved to replace an $11.1 billion previously slated for the ballot, convinced that voters would reject it.

Instead, voters will see a $7.5 billion measure that contains significantly less money for Delta restoration. The final sum represents a compromise both from Republicans, who called for $3 billion for surface storage projects, and from Brown, who sought an overall total closer to $6 billion.

Surrounded by beaming lawmakers, Brown signed the necessary legislation shortly after 9 p.m.

"We've got a real water bond, and we've got Democrats and Republicans that are more unified than I've ever seen, probably, in my life," the Democratic governor said. "It was an amazing convergence over a big idea, and the big idea is that the future of California needs a lot of water and we've got to use it in the best way possible."

In a pivotal concession, Democrats and the governor agreed to boost the amount of money for surface storage projects to $2.7 billion. Republicans had opposed a pact between Brown and Democrats containing $2.5 billion for new dams and reservoirs.

While money for storage and the Delta occupied a central place in negotiations, the bond would also allocate billions to provide clean drinking water to thirsty communities, guard against floods and treat or reuse water.

In the end, the vote tally masked the twisting and divisive debate that preceded Wednesday's deal. Assembly members voted 77-2 in favor of the measure and then broke into applause. In the Senate, the margin was 37-0.

"The need is so great in California," said Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento. "Sixty percent of the people suffering from drought conditions? There's no better time and certainly no time to say 'let's do this another time.' The time is now."

Without GOP support, lawmakers could not have mustered the two-thirds margin needed for passage. Republicans consistently demanded more money for surface storage, ideally enough to build two large-scale reservoirs capable of better sustaining California through another drought.

"It was real critical to get a bond that actually helped fund two reservoirs," Senate Minority Leader Bob Huff, R-Diamond Bar, told reporters. "We've had a lot of bonds in the last 15 years that haven't had any storage, so we finally have a water bond that has water in it."

The deal marked the culmination of feverish negotiations. Legislators returned from a July recess calling the new bond an overriding priority. Lawmakers and their staff met through the weekend and continued to talk with Brown until late Tuesday evening and through much of Wednesday.

Driving the sense of urgency was the need to prepare for the November election. On Monday, legislators voted to extend by two days the deadline for printing voter guides.

By acting within that deadline, lawmakers ensured voters who pick up voter guides will not read about an old bond that has since been discarded. But elections officials must still publicly display the $7.5 billion bond for a period of time before printing new, separate voter guides detailing the measure, meaning that the delay will cost millions.

A key point of dispute involved Brown's highly contentious plan to drill two massive water tunnels beneath the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, allowing water to flow to farms and cities in Southern California without passing through the Delta's precarious ecosystem.

Democratic leadership and environmentalists insisted that any bond be "tunnel neutral," carefully crafted so it did not pay for environmental mitigation required for Brown's Bay Delta Conservation Plan.

Watersheds across California would receive $1.495 billion under the bond deal approved Wednesday, with $137.5 million of it flowing to the Delta. That falls significantly below the $2.25 billion for the ecologically sensitive region in the previous, $11.1 billion bond.

But the remaining money will not expedite the tunnels, stressed Sen. Lois Wolk, D-Davis. Better to have a smaller allocation divorced from the tunnels, she said, than a larger outlay that could push the bitterly disputed project forward.

Under the agreement, $810 million would help fortify local water systems and $520 million would increase increase access to potable drinking water. Water recycling projects would be eligible for $700 million, and $395 million would become available for flood protection -- $295 million of it for projects in the Delta region, including work on levees.

The state of California's groundwater has attracted attention as the drought has taxed surface sources like rivers and reservoirs, pushing farmers and others to lean more heavily on wells. The bond would allocate $900 million for groundwater, much of it set aside for preventing contamination.

But $100 million would pay for groundwater management plans. California does not regulate groundwater withdrawals at the state level, though lawmakers are advancing bills to do so this year amid warnings that overpumping is rapidly draining aquifers.

(c)2014 The Sacramento Bee (Sacramento, Calif.)

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