Dan Walters: California's water wars breaking out again

dwalters@sacbee.comJanuary 2, 2013 

Dan Walters

Water, water everywhere, nor any drop to drink?

Samuel Taylor Coleridge didn't attach a question mark when he penned those words in "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" two-plus centuries ago. But the eroteme seems appropriate in 2013 as Californians simultaneously experience a wet winter and contemplate how to avoid water shortages in the future.

Three years ago, then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and legislative leaders were patting themselves on the back for resolving, or so they said, decades of water conflict.

"Democrats and Republicans came together and tackled one of the most complicated issues in our state's history," Schwarzenegger declared. "This comprehensive water package is an historic achievement."

The package created a new mechanism to decide whether the state would build a canal or tunnel to carry Sacramento River water around the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to the head of the California Aqueduct, financed by water users, and an $11.1 billion general obligation bond issue to finance other improvements, including two off-stream reservoirs.

But the bond was loaded with pork that had nothing to do with water supplies, such as a new park in the district of Karen Bass, who was then the speaker of the Assembly and seeking a congressional seat. Rather than see it go down to defeat, Schwarzenegger, et al., took it off the 2010 ballot and agreed to put it before voters in 2012.

But then Jerry Brown, who had fought the water wars during his first stint as governor three decades ago, returned to the office and he had other notions about water. While still supporting an "alternative conveyance" around or under the Delta, he wanted water users to pay for any new facilities, rather than taxpayers.

"Beneficiaries – or users – of water infrastructure projects should pay their share of the costs of those projects," Brown declared during the 2010 campaign. "The projects must be cost-effective and make long-term sense."

In other words, Schwarzenegger's water bond was dead. It was taken off the 2012 ballot and although it's still officially scheduled for 2014, it will be extensively rewritten and reduced – meaning water policy is back to square one.

Even though the apparatus created to write a new plan for the Delta has been functioning, actually doing what it advises and constructing the new conveyance depends on having the money to lubricate the process from a bond issue.

However, the state has little capacity to float new general obligation bonds of any kind, and water would compete with school and bullet-train bonds, among others.

One water bond bill has already been introduced and what – if anything – to put before voters will have a high place on the new legislative session's agenda. The state's perennial water war is breaking out again.

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