Sacramento River, looking north near Old Sugar Mill. Photo by John Howard, California Water Wars

A feisty Brown unveils new water plan

“I want to get shit done,” Brown declared Wednesday to his surprised listeners at a news briefing.” —-     An impatient and feisty Gov. Jerry Brown unveiled an extraordinary plan to More »

Sacramento River - Photo by Steve Martarano, USFWS

Grappling with the water bond

“Steinberg said it was conceivable that the bond could be reduced to $7 billion to $8 billion, but raised doubts about whether the proposal could be substantially rewritten. “All this needs to be More »

Lower American River, USFWS

Economy: Big player in November water bond

“There’s a lot of head-scratching right now,” said Assemblyman Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, the chair of the Assembly water committee.” The most ambitious and expensive water program to confront California voters since More »

A feisty Brown unveils new water plan

Sacramento River, looking north near Old Sugar Mill. Photo by John Howard, California Water Wars

“I want to get shit done,” Brown declared Wednesday to his surprised listeners at a news briefing.”
—-

 

 

An impatient and feisty Gov. Jerry Brown unveiled an extraordinary plan to bore two tunnels beneath the vast delta east of San Francisco to shift millions of acre-feet of water from northern California south to the state’s farm belt and the thirsty population of southern California.

“I want to get shit done,” Brown declared Wednesday to his surprised listeners at a news briefing. Brown, flanked by ranking state and federal officials, denounced the “analysis paralysis” which he said has led to inaction on California’s longest policy dispute – the equitable distribution of water across a state in which most of the rain falls in the north and most of the people live in the south.

Even as he spoke, environmentalists and their allies gathered outside the Resources Building and the state Capitol to protest the governor’s plan.

The $23 billion project — $14 billion for the pipes and $9 billion for environmental protections — is the culmination of nearly seven decades of formal study by federal and state agencies to get northern water to the south. Thirty years ago, voters rejected the construction of the Peripheral Canal that would have tapped the Sacramento River near Hood and transferred the water in a concrete-lined ditch some 42 miles to pumps at the delta’s southern edge.

The crux of the dispute is the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, the source of about half the state’s drinking water.

The delta, a confluence of rivers, is a fragile, farm-rich, marshy, slough-laced landscape crisscrossed by aging 19th century levees. Taking large amounts of water directly from the delta has harmed wildlife, so the dream of engineers and water contractors has been to devise a method of transferring northern water from above the delta southward without endangering the environment.

In the latest plan, the twin pipes will carry water, gravity fed, to the southbound aqueducts and channels near Tracy  – including the 700-mile-long California aqueduct – and thence to the water wholesalers, who are picking up the bulk of the tab of the billion project.

Grappling with the water bond

Sacramento River - Photo by Steve Martarano, USFWS

“Steinberg said it was conceivable that the bond could be reduced to $7 billion to $8 billion, but raised doubts about whether the proposal could be substantially rewritten. “All this needs to be backed up by policy and research,” he added.”

An $11 billion water bond facing voters on the November ballot likely will be rewritten, downsized or delayed two years – or even all three — to reflect political realities and a weak economy, says the leader of the Senate.

Confronting voters with a big borrowing package like the water bond – nearly as large in real dollars as the borrowing that financed the State Water Project more than 50 years ago — may not be prudent, given that Gov. Brown is pushing his tax initiative to raise $7 billion annually for schools and public safety over the next five years.

At least two other tax-increase plans to raise billions of dollars in new revenue also remain active.

But the governor’s plan takes precedence. “The tax initiative comes first,” Senate Leader Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, said Wednesday.

An earlier attempt to cut the bond offering by 25 percent across-the-board was rejected by majority Democrats, noting that the fragile compromises that crafted initiative likely would unravel if the projects were disturbed.

The $11.14 billion plan, with bipartisan backing and approved in super-majority votes, covers state, local and regional projects across the state.

Those include water quality improvements, watershed protections, groundwater storage and cleanup, recycling, Delta safeguards, drought relief and some $3 billion to develop new storage, including reservoirs near Fresno and the other near Maxwell north of Sacramento.

Most of the projects were included following difficult negotiations between rival forces.

Steinberg said it was conceivable that the bond could be reduced to $7 billion to $8 billion, but raised doubts about whether the proposal could be substantially rewritten.

“All this needs to be backed up by policy and research,” he added.

If lawmakers decide on placing a down-sized water bond before voters in November, they’ll need to act by late spring or early summer, he added.

Supporters of the water bond, who include major water agencies across the state, believe November offers the best chances of passage. That’s because Democrats – who historically have favored bond issues more than Republicans – will come to the polls in disproportionately greater numbers to vote in the presidential election.

The public has supported water development in the past. A $5.4 billion borrowing was approved in 2006 as Proposition 84, part of a larger infrastructure-improvement plan. At the time that Proposition 84 went before the electorate, California voters had approved some $11 billion for water projects during the previous decade.

Any change in the plan requires a two-thirds vote of members in each house.

In real dollars adjusted for inflation, the 2012 water bond is less than the voter-approved, $1.75 billion bond of 1960 that created the State Water Project. That bond would be worth about $12.7 billion today.

 

Economy: Big player in November water bond

Lower American River, USFWS

“There’s a lot of head-scratching right now,” said Assemblyman Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, the chair of the Assembly water committee.”

The most ambitious and expensive water program to confront California voters since the State Water Project was approved more than 50 years ago may wind up getting reduced by billions of dollars, a victim of politics and the economy.

The assumption is that recession-weary voters won’t approve a big-ticket bond, so the problem is this: How do you cut back a complex, $11.1 billion package that was put together — barely – with a fragile agreement in which each piece needed a signoff by rival political forces? If one piece is removed, does the whole structure start collapsing?

“There’s a lot of head-scratching right now,” said Assemblyman Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, the chair of the Assembly water committee.

When the economy is weak, California voters traditionally reject big borrowings. The water bond, approved in 2009, had been planned to before voters last year. As the recession took hold, nervous lawmakers decided – again, with two-thirds votes — to push the measure back to November 2012.

On paper, at least, November 2012 would appear to be a good choice. Democrats tend to favor bond borrowings more than Republicans, and next November is a presidential election in which a high-than-average turnout of Democrats is likely. Turnout for Democrats also will be driven by a Republican-backed move to block unions from automatically deducting dues from paychecks – a hot-button issue for unions, the core of the Democratic base.

The public has been supportive of water development in the past. A $5.4 billion borrowing was approved in 2006 as Proposition 84, part of a larger infrastructure-improvement plan. At the time that Proposition 84 went before the electorate, California voters had approved some $11 billion for water projects during the previous decade.

“The public is well aware that California has a serious water-supply problem,” said Timothy Quinn of the Association of California Water Agencies, “and that it will take investments in infrastructure and local resource development to solve that problem.”

Quinn’s group represents some 450 agencies that together deliver about nine out of every 10 gallons of water delivered to farms, cities and businesses.

But the November ballot also is fraught with peril: A spate of other borrowings and taxes may be on the ballot, too, including Gov. Brown’s $7 billion-a-year plan to raise sales taxes and impose new levies on the rich, then use the money for schools and public safety.

So the questions now are mounting.

Should the bond be pushed back again, this time to 2014? Should the bond go forward, but with a reduced price tag? If so, how should it be reduced – by removing projects or by an across-the-board cut? A bill to do just that, authored by Assemblyman Kevin Jeffries, R-Riverside, would make a flat 25 percent cut. Thus far, the bill is stalled.

Another option is to strip out all but the reservoir and storage money. That proposal – dubbed the “clean bond” — has little support in the Capitol except among Republicans, and which has outraged environmentalists.

Another possibility: Strip out the general obligation bonds, which require voter approval and priority payout from the General Fund, and instead use revenue bonds, which are paid off by the fees levied on those who get direct benefit of the projects. This sounds feasible, but critics note that local politics gets difficult here as customers find their bills higher to cover the costs of projects.

Any change in the plan requires a two-thirds vote of members in each house.

A final option: Don’t mess with the bond at all and let voters give thumbs up or down. For environmentalists, this may be the best choice.

“The water bond is a mess. It’s a creature of pork-barrel politics in the Legislature,” said Ron Stork, a senior policy advocate for Friends of the River, “allowing state-federal water contractors and dam builders to put as much of the costs onto general taxpayers, as opposed to the beneficiaries.”

At stake is the plan — approved by Republicans and Democrats alike in the Legislature last year – to borrow $11.14 billion for water projects up and down the state. Those include water quality improvements, watershed protections, groundwater storage and cleanup, recycling, Delta safeguards, drought relief and some $3 billion to develop new storage, including reservoirs near Fresno and the other near Maxwell north of Sacramento.

Dozens of projects were included as the result of stormy negotiations between local, regional and state water officials; environmentalists, Delta advocates, farmers, business interests and others. The result was legislation containing a patchwork of projects cobbled together to please local, regional and state interests.

In real dollars adjusted for inflation, the 2012 water bond is less than the voter-approved, $1.75 billion bond of 1960 that created the State Water Project. That bond would be worth about $12.7 billion today, according to westegg.com’s inflation calculator.

The key to winning voter approval for water bonds is getting enough diverse interests to support the projects, support that is driven by local districts that negotiated the package. That grass-roots support comes from local districts getting what they need.

But not everyone is happy with the November bond, including Huffman, who as water committee chairman carries a significant voice in important role in water issues.

“As written, this bond cannot pass in 2012 or any other year so my hope is — and the reality suggests — that we shouldn’t be seriously considering strategies to pass this particular bond, whether it is 2012, 2014 or 2020.”

“To be viable,” he added, “the revised bond will have to be leaner and greener.”

Ed’s Note: This story also appeared Monday on www.capitolweekly.net.

 

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