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Editorial: Jerry Brown, Democrats and Republicans agree on that most contentious of issues, water

A rare event played out in the Capitol on Wednesday night, and it’s worthy of note. Gov. Jerry Brown achieved bipartisan agreement on that most contentious of issues: water.

By votes of 37-0 in the Senate and 77-2 in the Assembly, the Legislature agreed to allow a statewide vote this Nov. 4 on a $7.5 billion bond intended to pay for improvements to California’s water system.

The deal, reached before dawn on Wednesday and voted on that night, was the culmination of negotiations that began in 2009 when Arnold Schwarzenegger was governor and approved an $11.1 billion bond. That measure passed with no votes to spare.

As Brown and many others saw it, Schwarzenegger’s bond was bloated and likely to be rejected by voters. It’s not as if $7.5 billion is a pittance. It is a boatload of money. The new bond includes plenty of money to go around, just not as much as was in the 2009 version. The slimmed-down bond is in keeping with claims by the governor and legislators that they are trying not to overspend as the economy recovers.

The deal is a fitting swan song for Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, who negotiated for Senate Democrats in 2009 and again this year, and is in the final days of his time as Senate leader. It also is a big win for Speaker Toni Atkins as she begins her time as Assembly leader.

Supporters include the California Chamber of Commerce, Western Growers, California Farm Bureau Federation, organized labor, and environmental organizations such as the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Nature Conservancy, a coalition that itself is rare.

Sen. Lois Wolk, D-Davis, the lead author of the Senate version of the bill, Senate Bill 866, had insisted that the bond include no money that could be perceived as helping construct the massive twin-tunnel project that Brown supports. Wolk succeeded, although the Sierra Club and some Delta interests seeking their vision of perfection are not satisfied.

Assemblyman Wesley Chesbro, a Democrat who represents far Northern California, voted against the bond, saying protections are insufficient for the Trinity and Klamath rivers, which are important to Indian tribes and fisheries in his district. State water authorities ought to address Chesbro’s concern by providing assurances.

Brown had sought to keep the bond below $7 billion. Legislators proposed bonds of $10 billion and almost $9 billion. The final $7.5 billion bond includes $400 million unspent from past water bonds, so indebtedness incurred if voters approve the measure would be roughly $7.1 billion.

The bond would include $2.7 billion for new water storage, a bump up of $200 million from an earlier proposal. That money could be spent on dams and reservoirs, or on storage in aquifers.

Republicans had sought $3 billion but settled on the lesser number, as did representatives of farm interests who view additional storage as vital to their survival.

Democrats received an additional $150 million for their priorities as part of the final deal, including more money to restore coastal watersheds and beaches to attract support from lawmakers who represent the Central Coast.

There will be money to restore rivers in San Diego, Orange and Los Angeles counties, for water recycling, which is important to San Diego, and to clean polluted groundwater in the Los Angeles area.

The final deal did not include money for everything all lawmakers wanted. But it included enough. For one night, Republican and Democratic legislators agreed on a fundamental tenet – that California cannot progress without an updated water system. That is worthy of note.