Sign in a Martinez, Calif., park highlights the severity of California's drought.

SAN FRANCISCO — Even a historic drought hasn't been enough to get California leaders to agree on a plan to improve the state's water system.

The Legislature is on recess through July, leaving the lingering question of whether a new water bond measure will make it to the ballot on Nov. 4.

Many different replacements have been proposed for the $11 billion general obligation bond measure for water projects currently slated for the ballot, but one — Senate Bill 848 — seemed to be making some headway as lawmakers worked toward a compromise on a water measure seen as more likely to pass muster with voters.

That compromise was not enough for Republicans in the Senate, who were able to keep the proposal from getting the necessary two-thirds vote on June 23.

The legislature adjourned for a one-month summer recess on July 1, no closer to getting a water bond bill passed.

"This isn't a loss. This is not the end of the debate," said Senate President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, who co-authored the bill. "This is the beginning of what I hope will be the final stages of a successful negotiation to put an amended water bond on the ballot in 2014, pass it with North and South, East and West together."

Although Republicans and Democrats are having trouble agreeing on the specific funding allocation of the water bond measure, most agree that now is the time to put a new measure on the ballot.

With California facing one of the most severe droughts on record, and Gov. Jerry Brown's declaration of a drought state of emergency in January, voter support for a water bond has increased, according to a poll conducted by the Public Policy Institute of California earlier this year.

While a new water bond would not address the immediate drought emergency, it would help to reserve more water and mitigate the impacts from future droughts.

The current $11 billion measure on the ballot was approved by the legislature five years ago but subsequently postponed twice, as lawmakers criticized it for being too large and loaded with earmarks and unlikely to win voter support.

Although the serious drought may have shifted public support, lawmakers still see problems with the $11 billion measure- mainly that it has too many specific allocations — and hope to scale back and replace it with a new bond.

Agreeing on a replacement has proved to be tricky. It will require support from Brown and two-thirds of lawmakers in each house, including Republicans in the Senate, where Democrats are short of a supermajority.

Even within parties, lawmakers have been divided among regional lines in order to support water interests for their own districts. Water storage has been a major issue, with Republicans wanting stronger protections and funding, while environmentalists have voiced concerns about the impacts of diverting water from fish and wildlife.

Funding for the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta tunnels, which are part of Brown's separate Bay Delta Conservation Plan, is another controversial issue. The plan includes constructing two 40-foot diameter peripheral tunnels 150 feet below the Delta to deliver water to points south without it going through the Delta. It has been estimated to cost at least $25 billion.

Senate Democrats say including funding for the project would cause a regional water fight and would not pass among voters.

SB 848, a new version of a measure originally proposed by Senator Lois Wolk, D-Davis, in December 2012, has been promoted as "tunnel neutral."

"This bond doesn't hurt any region and, critically, it avoids investments in controversial projects like the Delta Tunnels that will result in opposition at the ballot," Wolk said. "SB 848 is the only proposal that doesn't provoke a North-South water war and meets Republican core demand for surface storage."

Her original measure proposed $6.8 billion of bonds, but has since grown to $10.5 billion in order to gain key votes.

"I am especially disappointed in my Republican colleagues who voted to oppose SB 848 even after it was amended at their request to include $3 billion in surface storage funding — the only request they made to support this water bond," Wolk said. "I now regret granting their request."

The measure proposed $3 billion for safe drinking water projects, such as dams and reservoirs, and $3.2 billion for water quality projects. Another $1.3 billion was for projects to protect, restore, and improve the Delta, and $3 billion was for improving the statewide water system for drought preparedness.

Other funds would go toward restoration of the Delta and its ecosystem, including $400 million for improved levies.

The measured failed in the Senate with a 22-9 vote in favor, with 27 votes needed to pass. The 9 "no" votes all came from Republicans. Four Republicans and five Democrats abstained from the vote.

Wolk said she was also disappointed in those who opposed the measure and are instead in favor of a bond measure that includes more funding for the construction of Delta bypass tunnels.

Many Northern California interests view the proposal as a water grab by Southern Californians that gives them nothing in return but environmental damage.

Steinberg said that a bond perceived as furthering the Delta tunnels, or one that stokes a "North-South water fight," will not pass.

"The Wolk bond is tunnel neutral, and can pass with the voters," he said. "Governing is a matter of choices. We don't have the choice of doing nothing."

Californians for Fair Water Policy, a statewide coalition of environmental, water conservation, fishing, and farming organizations, opposes any state water bond measure that includes any funding to mitigate damage caused by the governor's proposed tunnels.

"The governor wants the public to pay for $7 billion in 'habitat and conservation,' which is required to win permits for the tunnels," said Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla, executive director of Restore the Delta, which is part of the coalition. "That is lipstick on the pig of the tunnels, and we oppose including it in any water bond measure."

Other members of the coalition include Friends of the River, California State Grange, the Southern California Watershed Alliance, and the California Campaigns Director Food & Water Watch.

According to Wolk, Republicans who blocked SB 848 are from Northern California and "tie[d] their horses to the Delta Tunnels."

Republicans to vote "no" on the bond measure included Senators Jean Fuller of Bakersfield, Andy Vidak of Hanford, and Tom Berryhill of Twain Harte.

"It was the compromising by all parties that led to the 2009 bond's ultimate success," Berryhill said. "While Senate Bill 848 has some positive ideas, the cornerstone of a comprehensive solution will treat water supply and reliability as equal to the health of the Delta."

A good solution for the bond would include adequate infrastructure to save water during rainy years, ensure there is water for agriculture, and have protections for the Delta, Berryhill said.

"We just have to keep working," he said. "A successful bond will be bipartisan and address our many different needs."

Vidak called SB 848 "worse than the 2009 water bond" that's already on the ballot. He said the proposal doesn't allow the state to move water to where it's needed.

After the measure failed in the Senate, SB 848 was pared down to $7.5 billion — less than the $10.5 billion version that didn't receive enough votes, but more than the bill's original $6.8 billion authorization.

A spokesperson for Wolk said she will continue working on language of the bill after the summer recess, and that they expect the bill to go up for another vote in August.

If lawmakers can compromise on a water bond when they reconvene on Aug. 4, it would still need approval from the governor.

"We want to look into a water bond and we want to find out something that would get two-thirds of the vote in the legislature, that would get a majority vote of the people, and that would accomplish important work for the long-term," Brown said ahead of a press conference in May.

Following the failed vote on SB 848, Brown told legislative leaders that he wants a $6 billion water bond to be put before voters in November, according to various news reports.

A spokesperson for Brown would not confirm that amount, but said the governor "is concerned about ongoing debt service and its impact on future budgets."

The statutory deadline of June 26 to get a bond on the November ballot has already come and gone. However, the Legislature can waive various laws to put something before voters in November.

According to Wolk's spokesperson, the Secretary of State has said that there are two deadlines for printing ballots for the statewide election in November — Aug. 11 and Aug. 20 — which Wolk will work to meet.

The final recess for the Legislature is Aug. 31.

 

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