Dan Walters

Dan Walters: Drought ramps up pressure on Legislature to write water bond

Dan Walters
Dan Walters

The water squeeze is on. A few sprinkles fell on the Capitol Monday as the Legislature reconvened, but they didn’t relieve either a severe drought or pressure on members to respond.

Having procrastinated for years, politicians now may have no more than a week to fashion a new water bond for the Nov. 4 ballot to replace one that many fear is doomed because of its size – $11.1 billion – and obviously gratuitous pork.

Very soon, officials must begin printing ballots and other election material so they can be distributed to overseas voters, including troops in Afghanistan.

That may force a compromise, although panicky, last-minute legislating has backfired in the past.

Or it may force Gov. Jerry Brown and legislators to choose between leaving the current bond on the ballot and postponing it for a third time, thus offering voters nothing on water.

The issue’s politics are complex.

The 2009 bond was a bipartisan compromise. Many Republicans, believing that drought changes its dynamics, would just as soon leave it on the ballot because it contains $3 billion for new reservoirs.

They have some leverage because at least a few GOP votes are needed to pass a new bond issue. But Democrats contend only a simple majority vote is needed to delay the 2009 measure again, even though two previous postponements were urgency bills with two-thirds votes.

Beyond partisan maneuvering, the two biggest variables are the size of the bond and the specific projects it would finance.

Brown has proposed $6 billion, while other proposals floating around the Capitol range upward to the $11.1 billion pending measure.

Initial financing for two new storage reservoirs, the big Republican priority, doesn’t sit well with some environmentalists while Democrats want the bond to be “tunnel-neutral,” meaning it would not be tied to Brown’s highly controversial plan to bore two huge water tunnels beneath the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

Until drought hit, Brown was reluctant to have any water bond, in part because he didn’t want it to be a referendum on his tunnels as he was seeking re-election. Given the nature of water storage and conveyance, however, it may be impossible to write a truly tunnel-neutral measure.

There are, meanwhile, an infinite number of proposals that may, or may not, be included, such as conservation, watershed rehabilitation, drinking-water quality improvement and wastewater reclamation.

For instance, Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins’ local water agency, the San Diego Water Authority, wants money for its ambitious desalination plans.

And on top of everything else, water bond politics are intertwined with new efforts to impose first-ever state regulation on pumping from underground water supplies, which desperate farmers have used – and probably overused – to offset the drought’s shortages.