Politicians finally getting serious about a water bond

08/11/2014 6:50 PM

08/11/2014 6:50 PM

The effort to craft an acceptable water bond for the November ballot went beyond the halls of the state Capitol on Monday, reaching to Washington, D.C., but not yet reaching a compromise solution.

As The Sacramento Bee’s Jeremy B. White reported, California lawmakers had converged on a proposed bond in the range of $7.195 billion. That would include money to increase storage capacity by raising dams and perhaps building a new dam. The question is how much the state would spend and where it would spend it.

Monday was supposed to be the deadline, but legislators pushed it aside. There’s already a bond measure on the ballot, asking for $11 billion for water projects. Call it the pinata plan – filled with enough candy for everyone, but a target for anyone with a stick. No one expects it to get approved; hence the need to replace it with a more tightly focused measure.

Two weeks ago, Gov. Jerry Brown came up with a $6 billion plan, but it had only $2 billion for new surface-storage projects. That was unacceptable to Republicans – and virtually anyone living with the effects of this drought. With the Valley delegation leading the way, Republicans insisted on $3 billion for storage.

By Monday, Brown had drifted toward $2.5 billion. But instead of growing his water bond by only that extra half-billion, it had expanded by $1.1 billion, causing us to wonder where the other $600 million is going to be spent if not on storage.

Some San Joaquin Valley Democrats are fixated on building Temperance Flat Dam on the San Joaquin River above Millerton Reservoir. Whether Temperance Flat will ever get built is unclear. Beneficiaries would need to pay for half the cost and courts would have to sort out who has the right to use water stored in it, since all of the San Joaquin River’s flow is spoken for. A new reservoir – perhaps in Colusa County – and increasing storage in Shasta and San Luis reservoirs by raising the dams might get a better reception.

California’s water future depends on using water more wisely and finding better ways to conserve it and use recycled water – which is where some of that other money would go. But we also must have more storage, benefiting both farmers and fish.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein lauded the outlines of the deal, saying: “I will do all I can to help get it passed this November.”

House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Bakersfield, was leaving Washington for summer recess, but said he would work with Feinstein and Sen. Barbara Boxer to develop “balanced” legislation to address California’s water needs. But he has also called for setting aside elements of the Endangered Species Act, which he claims “prioritize fish over people” and “have exacerbated the current drought and denied our communities the water we need.”

This is not helpful. No bond will pass if politicians inflame the nation’s environmentalists, driving them out of the coalition necessary to pass it. California’s water problem isn’t the Endangered Species Act, it’s that there hasn’t been enough rain in three years and our reservoirs are drying up. When it does start to rain, we need more places to store more water.

One of Brown’s longtime advisers, Gerald Meral, wrote to legislators Sunday urging them to approve a measure for the 2016 ballot. Meral predicted Stockton’s Dino Cortopassi, who owns Modesto-based Stanislaus Foods, would spend heavily to defeat any such measure. But Cortopassi hasn’t been so much anti-dam as stridently anti-tunnel.

Gov. Brown has promised to make his bond proposal tunnel-neutral. If he keeps that promise, we hope no one will mount a fight. If he doesn’t, then he deserves the fight he is guaranteed to get.

We must not kick this issue down the dusty road. We need more storage. Legislators need to work out an acceptable bond then work hard to get it passed.

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