California's state Senate leader has an idea to resolve mistrust generated by Gov. Jerry Brown's plan for two giant water diversion tunnels in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta: new legislation that would lay out regulations for how the tunnels would operate.
Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, floated the idea in a speech this week 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. "Is it possible, with a vote of the people, to lock in operational criteria for the governor's proposal? We could negotiate a more certain governance and decision-making structure, or a combination of both."
The water bond measure has been delayed repeatedly amid the state's economic troubles. As proposed, it would fund a broad array of water projects in California, including conservation projects and new water storage. Steinberg said he has begun discussions with lawmakers to place it on the 2014 ballot.
"It needs to get well under $10 billion," he said, down from prior iterations of $11 billion.
The governor's Delta proposal, called the Bay Delta Conservation Plan, features three new water intakes on the Sacramento River, near Courtland. They would divert water into two giant tunnels 35 miles long.
The tunnels would provide a new means of diverting freshwater from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to farms and cities in Central and Southern California. The goal is to reduce harm to imperiled fish species at existing diversions and secure the water supply from disasters such as floods, earthquakes and rising sea level.
The estimated $14 billion cost would be funded by bonds, which would then be repaid by higher water bills paid by the estimated 25 million Californians south of the Delta who rely on its water.
The essence of the mistrust is that Delta residents, and many environmental groups, see little reason to believe the tunnels will not further degrade the estuary.
Jonas Minton, a senior project manager at the Planning and Conservation League, said he could support a legislative solution if the project is first proven to be scientifically justified.
"No constitutional assurances can make up for a fundamentally bad project," Minton said.
Jeffrey Kightlinger, general manager of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, said he is skeptical of legislation but open to considering it.
"I get his idea that people are nervous," Kightlinger said. "I don't see how to do it, frankly. I always think it's a bad idea to narrow things down when we need to be flexible."
California and federal officials agreed to an Oct. 1 deadline to release a draft environmental impact study on the Bay Delta Conservation Plan. A preliminary draft was released online Friday: http://ht.ly/kV79Y
Contact The Bee's Matt Weiser at (916) 321-1264. Follow him on Twitter @matt_weiser.