Northern California leaders frame their position on water bond

Cynical observers of California politics sometimes assume the real reason for a new statewide water bond is to pay for projects that take water from the north and ship it south. But on Monday, a number of Northern California leaders made it clear they are prepared to support a water bond for the November ballot – under certain conditions.

About three dozen politicians and water managers representing the North State Water Alliance convened on the Capitol steps Monday to outline for lawmakers five general principles they believe must guide a water bond. They were joined by several collaborators from environmental and business groups.

The five principles: Existing water rights’ priorities and laws must be maintained; a bond should contribute to sustainable groundwater management; it should strongly emphasize water conservation and recycling; it should include projects to restore critical migratory corridors for salmon and waterfowl; and any money dedicated to new reservoirs should pay for dedicated environmental benefits and enhanced flexibility of the California water system as a whole.

“We have issues related to water that can only be fixed with a water bond, and we need to fix it with this Legislature,” said Bryce Lundberg, chairman of the alliance and owner of Lundberg Family Farms, a major rice-growing enterprise in Butte County. “We’re asking you for your strong leadership and rapid resolve that will move these criteria forward.”

There are currently seven different bond measures proposed in the Legislature that propose varying amounts of public spending on new dams, water conservation and habitat restoration projects. All are intended to replace an $11 billion bond measure approved for the ballot in 2009, but which was twice delayed because lawmakers feared it was too large and too packed with pork-barrel spending.

The Legislature faces a June 26 deadline to place a bond on the November ballot, although it could tweak the rules to delay into late August. A two-thirds vote by lawmakers is required, which means the bond will need bipartisan support.

Given the severe drought gripping California, it would seem an ideal time to offer voters a major water infrastructure bond. But the subject is always controversial because it involves big public debt for divisive projects like new dams.

“What brings us together today is a recognition that negotiations over a state water bond are coming to a head,” said Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson, also a member of the alliance. “We want to show our strength in Northern California on this very important issue. This coalition stands ready to be a part of a solution.”

Partners in the North State Water Alliance include the Sacramento Metro Chamber of Commerce, Sacramento Regional Water Authority, Sacramento Area Council of Governments, Mountain Counties Water Resources Association and the Northern California Water Association.