Dan Walters

Dan Walters: New water bond may be close, but it’s not fully cooked yet

Dan Walters
Dan Walters

Chances are that sometime Wednesday the Legislature will place a new water bond issue on the Nov. 4 ballot.

But it’s not certain, because as of late Tuesday, not all Democratic legislators had signed onto a $7.2 billion plan and it still lacked votes it needs from Republicans even if all Democrats were aboard.

Gov. Jerry Brown and Democratic legislative leaders fashioned the plan – a $6.995 billion bond and $200 million from previously authorized water bonds – to replace a 2009-vintage, $11.1 billion bond issue already on the ballot, contending that the current measure is too large and pork-laden to win voter approval.

However, it reduces the appropriation for new reservoirs and other water storage projects from $3 billion to $2.5 billion, thereby crossing a line that Republicans had drawn in the dirt. And it’s an issue for some farm belt Democrats as well as Republicans.

Two major farm organizations that had supported the $3 billion figure backed off and now support the $2.5 billion appropriation – and in doing so angered Republican leaders – but other agricultural groups still want the higher number. It looms as a hurdle that must be cleared if an agreement on a new water package is to win approval.

If that’s the big problem on the political right, the plan’s at least theoretical connection to the Brown-backed project to bore twin water tunnels beneath the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta alienates some big environmental groups on the left, such as the Sierra Club and the Planning and Conservation League.

They see money being spent on Delta habitat restoration and purchases of water to offset what’s diverted into the tunnels as connecting the new plan to the highly controversial tunnels.

Having a “tunnel-neutral” plan is paramount to Brown and legislative leaders, who believe that if it is seen as connected, it will doom voter passage.

It could also be an impediment to gaining legislative approval, especially among Northern California Democratic legislators opposed to the tunnels

With a deadline for placing issues on the Nov. 4 ballot already stretched to the breaking point, Brown and the legislative leaders convened a brief meeting of the plan’s major political, business, agricultural and environmental supporters in the Capitol on Tuesday and invited the media to show solidarity and presumably ramp up pressure on Republicans.

“We’re very close,” Brown told reporters and television cameras. “We’re not there yet,” Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins added later. “This is very, very good,” Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg offered.

The unsettled question is whether the trio can move enough on the plan’s details to garner the Republican – and some Democratic – votes it needs without attracting fatal opposition from the environmental left.

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