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Editorial: A water bond seems within reach, if no side overreaches

An agreement on a revised water bond for the November ballot seemed within reach on Monday, but only if no side gets too grabby.

That includes legislators from both parties and from all regions, and it includes members of Congress.

As The Bee’s Jeremy B. White reported, California lawmakers converged on a proposed bond in the range of $7.2 billion.

The proposal would include money to increase water-storage capacity by raising dams and perhaps building a new dam or two. Questions include where dams might be built and how much the state would spend.

Republicans have been insisting on $3 billion for what they call storage. Gov. Jerry Brown started at $2 billion, and since seems to have drifted toward $2.5 billion, a middle ground.

Some San Joaquin Valley Democrats, including Assemblyman Henry Perea, D-Fresno, are fixed on the notion that the bond include money for Temperance Flat Dam, which would be constructed up the San Joaquin River from Friant Dam and Lake Millerton.

Whether Temperance Flat ever gets built is not at all clear.

Direct beneficiaries would need to pay for as much as half the cost of the dam. There also would be complex legal questions to sort out about who could lay claim to any water that would be stored at Temperance Flat. Much of the water already is spoken for.

A new reservoir – perhaps in Colusa County – and taller dams at existing reservoirs would help in future droughts.

But California’s future depends on everyone using existing water more wisely. That includes greater conservation and more use of recycled water.

California farms help feed much of the nation. So Congress needs to offer a hand. We hope that role is constructive.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, who in the past has seemed to favor agricultural interests over environmental interests, lauded the outlines of the deal, saying in a statement: “I will do all I can to help get it passed this November.”

In a statement two weeks ago, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Bakersfield, said he is committed to working with Feinstein and Sen. Barbara Boxer to develop what he calls “balanced” legislation to address California’s water needs.

In another recent statement, however, McCarthy said Endangered Species Act regulations “prioritize fish over people” and “have exacerbated the current drought and denied our communities the water we need. They have even kept land from use for recreation and have hindered firefighting efforts.”

Legislation by Rep. David Valadao, R-Hanford, and embraced by the other 14 House Republicans from California would loosen the Endangered Species Act, on the theory such a step would open the spigots.

The measure no doubt makes some Central Valley water users feel good.

But it has little chance of passing the Senate and would enflame California’s environmentalists, who would be key to any coalition seeking to pass the bond.

California’s water problem isn’t the Endangered Species Act. It is that there hasn’t been sufficient rain in the past three years.

In a new wrinkle, one of Brown’s longtime advisers, Gerald Meral, sent a letter to legislators on Sunday urging that they approve a measure but place it on the 2016 ballot.

Meral said he anticipates that Dino Cortopassi, a wealthy Delta farmer and tomato processor, would spend heavily to defeat any such measure. We’d be surprised if there isn’t a well-funded opposition campaign. Californians always fight over water.

Even so, California legislators and Brown should do everything they can to reach an accord, place a bond on the November ballot and give voters their say.