Environment & Science

Southland legislators will sell their constituents and themselves on $11 billion water bond

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Around the state, the governor has been signing into law the bills that constitute a $40 billion water management package. That’s ended most legislative water politics for a while. But a year of public politicking awaits the bond measure that's a key part of the water plan.

A signing ceremony for water laws in Sun Valley became a campaign stop for the $11 billion bond measure voters will consider next November. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger sold the measure as the linchpin for the success of the water deal. "$11 billion is the bonds," the governor said, adding, "but the rest of it is local money and federal money that we are going to get. So this is a huge, huge undertaking."

Democratic Assembly Speaker Karen Bass underscored that point. She even seemed to equate the stakes for passing the measure with life and death. "We will begin our journey to make sure that Californians’ number one understand how vital this legislation is, understand how vital the Delta is, and that right now the Delta in its current condition is a potential Katrina if there's a major earthquake," she warned.

The bonds will pay for Sacramento Bay Delta ecosystem and supply projects. But wait, there's more: drought relief, groundwater cleanup, and water recycling get bond money too.

Some earmarks were too contentious to survive. Still, the bond measure ballooned $1 billion in the legislature. Marin County Assemblyman Jared Huffman admitted it's complicated. "Many people will see in it what they want to see, what they hope to see," he said.

Huffman pointed out that the plan will help tear down a long-contested dam on the Klamath River. At the same time, lawmakers have earmarked the largest chunk of the bonds, $3 billion, for new dams – one of the governor’s pet projects.

Democratic Assemblyman Kevin De Leon said the water bill is about more than just reservoirs. "We can't make it rain, so storage alone will not stop our drought problems," De Leon said. "Therefore we must stretch our existing resources further for the good."

De Leon and San Fernando Valley Assemblyman Bob Blumenfeld both like new laws that set goals for cities to cut their water use by 20 percent. But Blumenfeld said no comparable goals exist for agriculture, or to monitor the water that farmers use. "I wanted there to be more, heavier enforcement," he said. "Ag is still 80 percent of the water use. They're being required to do certain things but there's an area we can do a lot more. But this isn't the end of the game for those things."

Democratic Assemblyman Steve Bradford represents Gardena and Inglewood. He said he's still wary that the plan will unfairly hike water rates for city dwellers. "I don't want our folks to be overtaxed for infrastructure that might benefit other areas in the state," Bradford said. "Hopefully we'll work it all out."

Huffman said he knows it’ll take work to generate support for more public debt right now, but he called the bonds a necessary compromise. "I tried all year long to keep a general obligation bond out of the package because I think it's a tough time fiscally and politically to be going to the voters and ask for this level of borrowing," he said. Huffman added he's still no fan of surface storage projects. "But I will say this: everybody had to come out of their comfort zone. Me included."

Southland legislators who back the bond have a year to get voters comfortable with the idea too.