Controversial CA water bills pass: opponents vow ballot fight

Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has been making his way around California in the past week, signing the components of a controversial "water package" okayed by the legislature in the wee hours of Nov. 4.

Calling the bills "a historic achievement," Schwarzenegger, a Republican, said "clean reliable water" is "the lifeblood of everything we do in California." He praised the Democratic-led legislature for tackling "one of the most complicated issues in our state's history."

Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, called the bills "the single biggest advance in water policy" in decades, while Assembly Speaker Karen Bass, D-Los Angeles, said they were "a responsible plan."

But the jubilation was not universal. The complex legislation, the heart of which is an $11.1 billion bond issue that voters must approve in November 2010, has divided environmentalists, Democratic legislators and county water authorities. Its passage followed months of difficult negotiations involving a broad range of stakeholders.

At issue is the future of central California's Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta - the state's main water source - from which water-challenged southern California has been drawing so heavily that the future of the vital delta system is now threatened. Agriculture, and especially giant agribusiness, are far and away the state's biggest water users.

Besides the bond issue, the five-bill package includes a governor-appointed seven-member board to oversee water issues in the delta, cutting cities' water use by one-fifth in the next decade, fighting illegal water diversions, and a first-ever plan to measure groundwater.

Environmental organizations are divided on the bills. In support are the California League of Conservation Voters, Natural Resources Defense Council, Environmental Defense Fund and others. Opponents include the Sierra Club California, Planning and Conservation League, California Sportfishing Protection Alliance, Winnemem Wintu Tribe and Restore the Delta.

Several unions also oppose the measures, including the California Teachers Association, SEIU and the United Farm Workers - the latter having put together a $1 million fund to fight the water bond.

Restore the Delta's campaign director, Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla, said in a statement, "The water package that passed in the dead of night epitomizes the dysfunction that has gripped our legislative process. The package lost any semblance of rational debate and turned into a pork festival ..." With California's debt massive and growing, she asked, "How can we afford this?"

Others, including Delta region Democratic state Senator Lois Wolk and Assemblywoman Mariko Yamada, complained that the region was underrepresented in developing the bills, the governor-appointed council would likely cater to special interests, and Delta residents and their environment and economy won't be adequately protected.

Many commentators fear the legislation opens the way for a "peripheral canal" to ease the transfer of water to the south, a development they say would devastate the Delta's ecology.

Assemblywoman Noreen Evans, D-Santa Rosa, chair of the Assembly's Budget Committee, warned the bond measure would bring the state's debt to "historic new levels," and said that for the first time, Californians across the state would be required to fund half the cost of new dams and reservoirs that would benefit private interests.

The Environmental Defense Fund, which backed the bills, called them a "major step toward providing reliable water supplies for all Californians" as well as protecting the Delta ecosystem. Said EDF Executive Director Laura Harnish, "We're moving from a model based on extraction and conflict to one of conservation and collaboration."

Another supporter, Assemblyman Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, whose coastal district includes salmon fisheries now shut down for the second year in a row, said in an Oct. 7 radio address that the legislation "includes critical policy reforms to bring California water management into the 21st century." He cited the groundwater monitoring requirement and better methods to combat illegal water diversion.

At the end of a detailed analysis of the legislation's pros and cons in the San Francisco Chronicle, Dr. Peter Gleick, president of the prestigious Oakland-based Pacific Institute, put it this way: "If the new California water bill is all there is, it will not be enough to solve our water problems. If this is a first baby step toward fixing problems that have been ignored for a century, then I look forward to the next steps, soon."

 

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