California lawmakers pass landmark water legislation

Nov 13, 2009
by WLJ

California lawmakers pass landmark water legislation

Though California is often viewed as an oasis by those outside the Golden State, farmers and ranchers who earn a living in the agricultural wonderland know that it is not always paradise as water for crops, livestock and an increasing population is a hard bill to fit.

Last week, after decades of concern and months of effort at the State Capitol to fix California’s most crucial water source—the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta—the legislature finally passed a package of water bills that political figures, farmers, ranchers and environmentalists hope will fix what seems to be never-ending water crisis.

While the water package includes four legislative bills and one $11.1 billion bond for new dams, regional water projects, groundwater cleanup, land preservation and environmental restoration, voters will have to approve the stout bond in November of 2010.

So, with the state’s unrelenting deficits and warnings from California State Treasurer Bill Lockyer that paying the debt on the bonds could detract from spending for already-strapped social programs, the sizeable bond may not prove to be all that it is cracked up to be as it could cost the financially-unstable state as much as $700 million per year in debt payments.

Senate pro tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, was one of the driving forces behind getting the water package addressed and passed. Shortly after the passage of the set of bills, Steinberg released a statement saying that the water package secures for all Californians improved water quality, and an increased water supply.

"California cannot grow and prosper without a reliable water supply," Steinberg said. "… this comprehensive water package acknowledges that water in California is a scarce, but precious resource and every community has a stake in ensuring that there’s enough to go around for everybody."

While many elected officials throughout the state seem pleased with the results of the package of bills, others, including some lawmakers, environmentalist groups, and those in the farming and ranching community are still concerned by what the package of bills could mean.

The California Cattlemen’s Association (CCA) has worked closely with lawmakers from the time the water package was first proposed to make sure that ranchers’ concerns are addressed.

CCA Executive Vice President Matt Byrne said he was pleased to see that $3 billion for storage would come from the bond and that CCA is encouraging their members to get involved in their local areas and share with voters how the water package will impact farmers and ranchers before the vote next year.

"Overall, we are glad to see legislators working together to improve California’s delta system. Without the delta, California farmers and ranchers could not supply food for Californians and people across the globe. As always, we are gathering feedback and concerns from our members as the issue unfolds and will be working with lawmakers, government agencies to make sure ranchers’ needs are met."

California Farm Bureau Federation President Doug Mosebar said the legislature has moved toward the solutions needed to restore reliable water supplies but that there is still much work to be done.

"To fix our broken water system, we must add new water storage both above ground and underground; we must improve our ability to move water; we must protect the water rights that people depend on, and we must enhance the delta ecosystem," Mosebar said. "The bills move us in that direction. We’ll continue to work with the administration and state agencies as they implement the bills to make certain that they recognize how important it is to grow food and strengthen rural economies in California."

Sen. Leland Yee, D-San Francisco, is among the politicians who objected to the water package, saying it is a bad deal for the San Francisco area and for the Bay-Delta ecosystem.

"This water package lacks an effective mechanism to bring about real environmental change or water conservation, and will likely result in another layer of bureaucracy and more litigation," said Yee. "This water package unfairly burdens those who can least afford it. It is wrong to finance this water deal almost entirely through general obligation bonds, which will only result in further cuts to our state’s safety net."

Prior to the legislation, California was the only western state to not regulate groundwater—that will now change as part of the water deal.

Another element of the legislative package that is geared at reducing water usage mandates an overall 20 percent decrease in the state’s per capita water use by 2020.

The unique water package could also incorporate one of the most controversial aspects of the state’s ongoing water debate—a privately-funded "peripheral" canal that would divert water around the delta to drought-stricken farms and water districts in the central and southern parts of the state. Such a canal is one of the options that could be considered until the water package, but only if it meets a very high environmental standard.

This aspect calls for the creation of a seven-member Delta Stewardship Council whose mission would be to ensure a reliable water supply while protecting, restoring and enhancing the delta ecosystem. The council would be in charge of planning, financing, building and operating new facilities needed to accomplish those goals.

While agriculture-friendly Assembly member Jim Nielsen, R-Biggs, said he was pleased to see strong efforts made to a comprehensive water solution for California farmers and citizens, he was opposed to the creation of the council.

"I am troubled by the creation of a ‘Delta Stewardship Council’ that would act as a water czar for California. This new commission, which I voted against, could put environmental interests and the rights of fish ahead of the needs of humans if allowed to expand beyond the authority created by this bill," Nielsen said.

Illegal water diversions are also included in the set of bills. Environmentalists asked for heavy fines for siphoning water, an abuse they said is rarely monitored. Farm interests prevailed by getting a scaled-down program with 25 new inspectors and smaller fines.

According to California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, the water issue is not a Democratic or Republican one, but rather a California issue that is about having enough water, both safe and reliable, for the future of the state.

"Mark Twain once said that whiskey is for drinking, but water is worth fighting over, and I think that this is exactly what has happened over the last few decades," Schwarzenegger said. "You know, we are now stuck with a water infrastructure that’s for 18 million people but in the meantime, we are 38 million people and very soon we’re going to be 50 million people by the time all of this infrastructure is built. People have fought and fought and fought, Democrats against Republicans, businesses against labor, farmers against environmentalists, rural against urban, the north versus the south. For decades, these divisions have blocked California from investing in its water infrastructure."

As of last Monday, all of the water bills that reached the governor’s desk had been signed into law. The bond measure now rests in the hands of California voters. — WLJ