SAN FRANCISCO — The issue of water infrastructure is expected to take center stage when California lawmakers return from recess Aug. 17 for the last four weeks of their session.
Despite the often contentious negotiations that finally yielded a budget agreement in July, Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and the Democratic leaders of the Legislature say they want to move past years of fruitless discussions to pass legislation for water projects that would require billions of dollars in bonds.
The Democrats earlier this week announced a package of five draft bills that would get their first hearing on Aug. 18. Lawmakers are slated to adjourn Sept. 11.
In many respects, the bills reflect policies the Democrats have pursued, in opposition to Schwarzenegger, in the water debates of recent years. They include no new dam construction and they specify a beneficiary-pays financing structure — which means revenue bonds, as opposed to the general obligation bonds Schwarzenegger has proposed in the past.
The governor’s response to the proposals was favorable, though light on the details.
“California’s water situation is urgent and I applaud the Democrats for recognizing that and bringing their ideas to the table,” his statement said. “Fixing California’s broken water system cannot be put off any longer, we must get it done this session — the longer we wait, the worse the effect of our water shortage is on our citizens and our economy.”
The state’s water supply system is centered on the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, territory through which the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers flow to San Francisco Bay.
The State Water Project and the federal Central Valley Project take fresh water that originates in northern California and send it south through a series of man-made aqueducts and channels, after the water flows through the Delta to powerful pumps in its far southeastern corner.
It is widely agreed that the environmental health of the Delta — and its related fisheries — is in decline, exacerbated by recent years of drought.
Those troubles have led to court orders limiting the flow of water through the pumps. That, in turn, has increased pressure from water users in Southern California and the agricultural Central Valley to do something about the problem.
But environmental groups with an interest in the Delta are increasingly concerned that that “something” will be a “peripheral canal,” a plan that is favored by Schwarzenegger and would to draw water around the Delta and ship it south. The Delta activists believe that the canal will make the environment of the Delta even worse.
Those environmental groups went into full “red alert” mode this week after legislative Democrats released the draft bill language.
“The five bills comprise a roadmap to a peripheral canal,” Bill Jennings, executive director of the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance, said in a statement.
His concern: the draft legislation would confer authority over the Delta to a new seven-member Delta Stewardship Council, with four members appointed by the pro-canal governor.
The Democrats’ proposal could be adopted by a simple-majority vote, making it theoretically easier to negotiate both the partisan and the north-south geographical splits in the Legislature. A plan involving general obligation bonds would require two-thirds votes in the Legislature, plus a vote of the people in a referendum.
In the early 1980s, lawmakers and then-Gov. Jerry Brown approved a plan to build a peripheral canal, but opponents forced a statewide referendum in 1982 in which voters rejected the plan.