California's Senate leader has floated a controversial idea to resolve mistrust threatening Gov. Jerry Brown's plan for two giant water diversion tunnels in the Delta: legislation to govern the tunnel operations.
Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, floated the idea in a speech Wednesday at a conference held by the Association of California Water Agencies in Sacramento. He said that perhaps a long-delayed water bond, now targeted for the 2014 ballot, could include language to "operationalize the rules of the game" for the tunnels. He also suggested amending the state constitution to achieve the same effect.
Steinberg called it a "trial balloon" and not an actual proposal for legislation.
"The reaction I've gotten, a little bit, is that it's provocative," Steinberg told The Bee. "I'm saying, whatever it takes to provide assurances over a long period of time is what we ought to do, because trust in the water world is not there. That's what really underlies all the debates."
Steinberg said he has begun discussions with other lawmakers to get the water bond on the 2014 ballot. "It needs to get well under $10 billion" overall, he said, down from prior iterations of $11 billion.
The governor's proposal calls for three new intakes on the Sacramento River, near Courtland in Sacramento County, to divert water into two giant tunnels 35 miles long. The tunnels would deliver freshwater from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to existing state and federal canal systems near Tracy.
The goal is to protect imperiled fish species from existing diversions and secure the water supply from disasters such as floods, earthquakes and sea level rise.
The estimated $14 billion cost would be funded by bonds, repaid by higher monthly water bills paid by the estimated 25 million Californians who rely on Delta water.
The essence of the mistrust is that Delta residents and many environmental groups, so far, see little reason to believe the tunnels will not be misused to divert too much Sacramento River water.
Jonas Minton, a senior project manager at the Planning and Conservation League, said he could support a legislative solution -- if the project itself is proven to be scientifically justified.
"A major challenge," Minton said. "would be to identify assurances that Delta interests and conservationists believe would protect their interests but would not be unacceptable to the water exporting agencies."
Also this week, state and federal officials agreed to a Oct. 1 deadline to release a draft environmental impact study on the project. A preliminary draft was released online Friday at: http://baydeltaconservationplan.com/Library/DocumentsLandingPage/EIREISDocuments.aspx.