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Water plan has local goodie

Originally published: 11/5/09

A nonprofit tolerance center in midtown Sacramento, championed by state Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, could get a vital economic boost from an unlikely source: a mammoth $10 billion water bond proposal.

Nestled among the provisions of a measure approved on a 29-5 vote by the Senate late Monday is language that would earmark "not less than $10 million" for the California Unity Center.

The center, which is proposed for construction on the site of the old Sacramento City Unified School District headquarters at 16th and N streets, is envisioned as a "statewide hub" to teach tolerance to students and encourage "collaborative problem-solving," according to its Web site.

Language in the bond bill stipulates only that the $10 million "shall be available for capital improvements to nonprofit facilities that provide watershed, environmental justice and urban greening education programs to students in the Sacramento City Unified School District and the surrounding area."

But Steinberg acknowledged Tuesday that the provision was included to benefit the unity center, for which he has been raising money over the past several years, from business interests that range from an Indian casino tribe to The Sacramento Bee.

Steinberg, who has been the driving force behind the Legislature's efforts to revamp the state's creaking water system, defended inclusion in the bond bill of a project seemingly unrelated to the state's water problems.

"Frankly, if I have the opportunity to use the power I have to further civil rights and to further California history in any way, I'm going to do that," he said. "I will always do what I can to try to bring resources to my district, and especially for a project that I think is so essential to young people in our community and throughout the state."

Steinberg's remarks came as legislators slogged through a second full day of efforts to pass a package of bills that would dramatically overhaul the way California deals with delivery, storage and management of its water resources.

While all but one bill in a six-bill package had passed the Senate by late Tuesday evening, the Assembly had passed just one of the measures.

The bills include efforts to improve conservation, oversee restoration of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, better manage groundwater supplies and stiffen penalties for illegal diversion of water.

The bond proposal -- which was expected to grow to more than $11 billion by the time Assembly members were done adding to it -- is envisioned to pay for projects that range from building dams to financing recycling and wastewater treatment projects.

As approved by the Senate, the bond proposal includes numerous earmarks for specific projects around the state, from $8 million for drinking water improvement in the Los Angeles County city of Maywood to $20 million for cleaning up the New River in the Imperial Valley.

But those projects seemed more directly related to water than the unity center.

Dennis Mangers, a senior adviser to Steinberg and chairman of the Capital Unity Council, said the proposed center's connection to water was that the center would include an aquarium, a botanical garden and other exhibits dealing with the role that water has played in the state's history.

The "water education component" would educate visitors about the role water systems play in encouraging successful communities and in triggering conflict.

Jon Coupal, president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, said his group is concerned that inflating the cost of the bond with pork projects will lead voters to reject funds for core water projects that are severely needed.

"Why don't they just put in a water fountain and say that's the connection to the water bond?" he asked. "It is Christmas-tree proposals with all these ornaments that will make the voters very suspicious of this stuff."

Mangers said the council, which was created in 1999 in the wake of a series of hate crimes in Northern California, was about halfway to its fundraising goal of $30 million to build the center. He also said the water education element was included as part of the center's plans long before the bond measure was drafted.

If approved as part of the bond proposal to be presented to voters next year, Steinberg said, the $10 million in bond money would help the council leverage enough in additional funds to reach the $30 million level.

Revelation of the earmarked unity center funds wasn't Steinberg's only headache Tuesday. Sacramento sewer district officials complained that "despite repeated promises," he had failed to protect the district from having to buy costly new treatment technology if a canal is ever built through the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

Officials at the Sacramento Regional County Sanitation District said they thought they had guarantees from Steinberg that any costs incurred by the district for equipment made necessary by the canal would be paid for by those downstream who would benefit from the canal.

"We held off on our opposition and advocacy efforts because we trusted Sen. Steinberg and believed he would uphold his promise," SRCSD district engineer Mary Snyder said in a statement. "We were wrong."

Steinberg countered that what the district was worried about is nothing, that only one word had been changed in the proposal, and that it was "a distinction without a difference."

DEALING FOR DOLLARSAn excerpt of the section of the $10 billion water bond proposal that would authorize funds for the California Unity Center, a midtown Sacramento project championed by Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg:

Of the funds provided in Section 79750 ... not less than ten million dollars ($10,000,000) shall be available for capital improvements to nonprofit facilities that provide watershed, environmental justice and urban greening education programs to students in the Sacramento City Unified School District and the surrounding area.

Call Steve Wiegand, Bee Capitol Bureau, (916) 321-1076.