Friday, July 11, 2008

$9.3 billion water bond proposal goes to lawmakers

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sen. Dianne Feinstein floated a $9.3 billion proposal for new dams and Delta projects Thursday in what amounted to a last-ditch attempt to get lawmakers on board with a water bond package in time for November's elections.

The plan, however, got a cool reception in the capitol where lawmakers are struggling with an estimated $15.2 billion budget deficit and mindful that voters just two years ago approved billions of dollars in mostly unused bonds for some of the same initiatives.

"California's future can't tolerate the instability we have in the Delta," said Schwarzenegger's top water adviser, Water Resources Director Lester Snow. "California needs more storage — there's really no question about that."

Most of the money in the measure submitted Thursday would go to three areas: Delta levees, water quality and ecosystem; grants to local and regional water agencies for regional projects; and water storage projects.

The package contains $3 billion that could be used to build new dams and expand water storage capacity.

The other two central elements of the package — regional grants and Delta issues — have money available that has not yet been spent.

Proposition 84, the $5.4 billion statewide environment and water measure passed in 2006, made $1 billion available for regional water projects. That same year, Proposition 1E authorized $4.1 billion for Delta and upstream levee Advertisementimprovements.

Less than $2 billion from those measures has been approved for spending.

"The best way for the state of California to boost water supply quickly is to put the $9 billion in bond money approved by voters in 2006 to work," state Senate Pro Tem Don Perata, D-Oakland, said in a statement.

Still, with the state facing drought and Delta environmental crisis and deteriorating levees, supporters of another water bond say now is the time to get approval for new projects, especially water storage projects.

"The water situation is urgent, it's deteriorating and she believes now is the time for a solution," said Feinstein spokesman Scott Gerber.

In the past two years, negotiations on surface storage have revolved around how much certainty would be afforded to the actual construction of dams.

Rather than simply fund new dams, the package would cover as much as half the total cost of water storage projects, and those projects would be reviewed by a state water commission whose members would be subject to Senate confirmation.

But a spokesman for Perata said it would be unprecedented for the water commission to have so much authority over state spending. He added that the way the package is written appears to favor dams over other kinds of water storage projects.

"To us, that doesn't look like a compromise," said spokesman Andrew Lamar.

The California Farm Bureau, an association of statewide water agencies and the Bay Area Council, a regional business group, offered varying degrees of support.

"The Delta faces a triple threat from either a rise in sea-level, a catastrophic flood or an earthquake," said Bay Area Council CEO Jim Wunderman. He said those threats could breach the 1,345-mile levee system, sucking saltwater from the Bay and depositing it over the region's low-lying islands, farms and residences. "For at least a year or two, only salt water could flow into the California Aqueduct, which 23 million Californians use, and to be stark — yet accurate — essentially ending civilization as we know it in California."

Meanwhile, a water policy analyst at the environmental group the Planning and Conservation League, Mindy McIntyre, said the bond package would not solve the state's most pressing water problems in time.

"A greater focus on short term measures, such as increased conservation and use of the billions in existing water bond funds, would be a much more effective strategy to address this year's drought," McIntyre said.

The proposal goes to the state Legislature, where it will require approval from two-thirds of both houses. If it passes, the issue would be decided by majority vote in November.

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