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Delta's future hinges on cash

Originally published: 10/8/09

The first effort in a generation to fix California's all-important water policy appears to be stalled by the only commodity that seems more valuable: money.

Legislators face a self-imposed Friday deadline to deliver a pair of water bills designed to improve conditions in the ailing Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, hub of the state's water system.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has demanded a water package this year, and must sign any new laws by Sunday. The governor is withholding action on more than 700 other pending bills, and legislators fear he may veto many of those if the water package doesn't come through.

The first of the bills, SB 68, would reform the complex management of water in and around the Delta, the largest estuary on the West Coast and a source of drinking water for 23 million Californians.

Lobbyists are still fighting over details, including important assurances for north-state water interests. But this bill appears to have support from water interests and some environmental groups.

Not so for the second bill, AB 893, a bond measure to pay for a variety of new waterworks and Delta restoration projects. Disagreement remains over how large the bond should be, and what it should or shouldn't pay for.

Cost estimates for the legislation have ranged as high as $12 billion, prompting public employee unions to weigh in against the bill. They worry a new state debt obligation that large could dent state worker pay in the future.

"Given the current economic situation in the nation and the state, it may be difficult to go to the voters with a multibillion-dollar bond," acknowledged Tom Birmingham, general manager of Westlands Water District, the largest agricultural entity that depends on Delta water.

A dispute over AB 893 is whether bonds should pay for water projects that may not benefit all Californians.

Republicans want billions in the bond measure dedicated to building new reservoirs, for instance. But current bill language outlines a competitive process: Storage projects with the most public benefits would get funding, and new dams would have to compete against groundwater storage for funding.

There also is concern that the package doesn't adequately fund important new programs, such as the Delta Stewardship Council, designed to consolidate water management responsibilities now divided among more than 200 agencies.

Creating the council was a key proposal of the Delta Vision Blue Ribbon Task Force, a Schwarzenegger-appointed body that for nearly two years analyzed the estuary.

Phil Isenberg, former chairman of the task force, said there is neither stable funding nor sufficient authority for the council in either bill.

"The game in politics is, if you think you're going to lose the fight over somebody having authority to do something, then you make sure they don't have any money or staff to do it," said Isenberg, also a former mayor of Sacramento and member of Assembly. "It's just the same thing over and over again."

Isenberg's task force described a schedule of actions they deemed necessary to prevent deeper water shortages and further ecological harm to the Delta. Some of those goals have already slipped, and Isenberg said it's important to act on the water bills now.

Others say more time will lead to a better package.

Among them are a number of influential Northern California water agencies, including the San Francisco Public Utility District, East Bay Municipal Utility District, and city of Sacramento.

They fear the current bills require them to give up water rights to improve freshwater flows through the Delta. They want amendments that would require the state to first prove that their water diversions harm the Delta.

Randy Kanouse, lobbyist for the East Bay Municipal Utility District, said the current bill language is a tool to ensure enough water in the Delta to fill a controversial new canal, which would divert a portion of the Sacramento River's flow directly into export pumps serving Southern California.

Water agencies that benefit from a canal have agreed to pay for it, and its cost is not part of the proposed bond. It is being studied and approved via a separate process called the Bay Delta Conservation Plan. The plan includes a host of environmental improvements, some of which would be funded by the bonds.

Local water agencies complain they were left out of the Delta decision-making process, just as they were excluded from negotiations over the water bills.

"Somebody got left out, and the somebody is all of Northern California -- all of the communities that have water rights, that take water out of the watershed lawfully," Kanouse said.

The bill package also includes language to achieve the governor's statewide 20 percent water conservation goal by 2020. But Sacramento interests say their share of that goal is another kind of subsidy for Southern California. They claim any water saved here stays in the rivers and can then be diverted south.

"We're certainly behind efficient water use, and have taken a lot of steps in that direction," said John Woodling, executive director of the Sacramento Regional Water Authority. "But we're concerned about the mandatory nature of what's in the bill now."

Call The Bee's Matt Weiser, (916) 321-1264.