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Compromise will be key in creating workable water bond

Does Gov. Jerry Brown want to place an effective water bond on the November ballot?

Do Republicans want to blow up a bond that would improve California’s water system by refusing to accept a penny less than $3 billion for new dams and reservoirs?

Do advocates for the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta want to forgo millions of dollars in habitat restoration that could help the failing heart of California’s water system?

The governor and the Legislature need to answer these questions in the next few days as negotiations approach the deadline to get a water bond on the ballot, replacing an $11.1 billion bond approved in 2009.

The size of the water bond under negotiation by Brown and legislative leaders is flexible. The governor wants a $6 billion bond. A Senate version, SB 848 by Sen. Lois Wolk, D-Davis, is $7.5 billion. Senate Republicans on Friday proposed an $8.7 billion version. Whatever the bond amount ends up being, dealing with California’s need for clean, safe drinking water this century will take that much and more.

Proponents of new reservoirs should be flexible, understanding that Brown is insisting that the size of the bond must shrink and include “no frills, no pork.” Brown, too, needs to be prepared to give. Having been involved in more than a few negotiations, he surely knows that a “frill” could be vital to winning support from a particular region.

The Delta Conservancy should be treated as other conservancies, such as those that oversee Lake Tahoe and the Santa Monica Mountains. Like the other conservancies, the one overseeing the Delta ought to have control over the bond money dedicated to the region.

And that’s the rub for some proponents of the twin tunnels who oppose the Delta Conservancy handling restoration projects. The proponents want state money to pay for the projects and count that toward achieving the stated goals of the Bay Delta Conservation Plan: restore the Delta, while providing water for valuable Central Valley farms and Southern California, where two-thirds of the state’s 38 million residents live.

Polls show a bond that includes money for the twin tunnels could lose on Nov. 4.

With that polling in mind, Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg contends that the bond should be tunnel-neutral, meaning no money should be used for any aspect of tunnel construction.

Polls also show voters more likely would approve a bond that is scaled down from the $11.1 billion version the Legislature approved in 2009.

No matter the size of the bond – the amount is up to politicians and policy wonks – the bond needs to provide sufficient funds for safe drinking water for poor Central Valley towns where well water is polluted.

There must be money to manage groundwater, strengthen Delta levees and restore some Delta wetlands. And of course, California must do a better job of conserving and recycling water.

Final negotiations are going on now. There will be plenty of brinkmanship. In this the third year of severe drought, the governor and legislative leaders, including Republicans, must know that the timing of a statewide vote on a water bond will not be better.