Delta News

Delta tunnels, conservancy in spotlight as Senate bond proposal falters

With the governor’s controversial Delta tunnel project a key part of the debate, lawmakers on Monday failed to advance a leading Senate proposal to put a revised water bond on the November ballot.

The Senate voted 22-9 for the $10.5 billion borrowing measure, five votes short of the required two-thirds threshold, without any Republicans lending support. It marked the first floor vote for any of a crop of new water bond proposals circulating through the Legislature.

A withering drought has whetted Sacramento’s thirst for a new water bond. Lawmakers have introduced several water bond proposals intended to replace the $11.1 billion measure currently slated for the November ballot. The general consensus among lawmakers is that the larger bond, passed in a fall 2009 special session, would fail if put before voters.

Monday’s outcome cements the reality that the Legislature will not move a new ballot to the bond by June 26, the technical deadline for November ballot measures. Lawmakers have missed ballot deadlines in the past, however, and waived the law to put measures before voters anyway. Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, said he hoped to complete work on a new bond before the July recess but conceded the effort could extend through August.

“It gets tougher the longer you go into the summer,” Steinberg told reporters.

As the field of potential new bond proposals has narrowed, Senate Bill 848 by Sen. Lois Wolk, D-Davis, has remained the vehicle of choice for Senate Democrats.

In a weekend television appearance, in remarks to reporters Monday and on the Senate floor, Steinberg placed Brown’s proposal to build massive water conveyance tunnels under the Delta at the center of the water bond debate. Any link to the tunnels would doom a bond in the eyes of voters, Steinberg argued, brandishing polling to back up his point.

“You can’t pass a bond unless it’s tunnel-neutral,” Steinberg said on the Senate floor. “The Wolk bond can pass the voters,” he added. “It is tunnel-neutral.”

The key difference, said Steinberg and backers of Wolk’s bond, is that SB 848 would give the Delta Conservancy a central role in managing $900 million for Delta restoration. Wolk has the deepest ties to the Delta region of any lawmaker sponsoring water bonds, and she argued on Monday that the 11-member Delta Conservancy should have a prominent role in managing bond money.

“In order to create a restoration project anywhere in the state, you need to have a local partner. You can’t come flying in from 30,000 feet and use eminent domain,” said Wolk. “The Delta Conservancy gives the Delta community a voice.”

That proposition gave critics pause.

“I would argue to be careful of the amount of money we put into the Delta,” said Sen. Jim Nielsen, R-Gerber, who did not vote for the bond.

Recent amendments substantially bulked up the proposal, including additional billions for surface storage that Wolk and others described as a concession to Republicans.

“We have not done anything in major storage since the ’60s,” Nielsen said. “This is the time, and that $3 billion is a fundamental, not-to-be-compromised element.”

The additional storage money was not enough to entice Republicans who rose in opposition to the measure. Some Republican skeptics sounded hopeful, with Sen. Andy Vidak, R-Hanford, saying the bill “is getting really, really close.”

But the caucus balked at the clout the bond affords to interests in the Delta region, according to Senate Minority Leader Bob Huff, R-Diamond Bar.

“The main issue was it was a conservancy, Delta-centric bond,” Huff said after the vote. “When we look at our constituencies, most of them are flatly opposed to it.”

Republicans also argued that Democrats had not done enough to honor the spirit of a 2009 bond that, though it has since been abandoned by many legislators, emerged from many hours of negotiations.

“We spent countless, and I mean countless, weeks and then hours and hours putting that bond together,” said Sen. Tom Berryhill, R-Twain Harte. “The 2009 water bond recognized the need for a comprehensive solution.”

Wolk’s bond, he said, “is not really a compromise and falls way short of many of the agreements both Republicans and Democrats fought for in the 2009 bipartisan deal.”

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