State water deal met with skepticism

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By Rebecca Bowe

State lawmakers stayed up late last night working on historic legislation that will revamp California’s water system. The Senate OK’d a $9.9 billion bond, which includes $3 billion for the creation of new reservoirs, which would need to go to voters for final approval. It also approved a bill that establishes new statewide water conservation targets at 20 percent less water by 2020. Lawmakers are expected to continue debating other water policy proposals and could vote on the rest of the package today, but a deal isn’t certain yet.

The bills are meant to address a host of problems associated with the state water-supply system. Voluminous water pumping has wreaked havoc ecologically in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, but farms in the Central Valley have had to fallow fields due to less water becoming available for irrigation during the drought. Meanwhile, aging earthen levees throughout the Delta are highly vulnerable to the effects of a natural disaster, which could interrupt a huge portion of the state’s water-delivery system.

Even as the deal enters the final phase of negotiation, a host of local elected officials, organizations representing the salmon fishing industry, Delta interests, and other conservation groups say they’re unhappy with the way things are shaping up. A key concern is that environmental protections will take a back seat to water infrastructure projects.

All the separate bills must pass, or the entire water package fails. On the table is a measure that would establish mandatory groundwater monitoring, and a bill to establish the Delta Stewardship Council, which would consist of seven members with four seats appointed by the governor. The council would have the authority to approve a peripheral canal, which could transport water around or through the Delta to arid regions in the south. That project has been endorsed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and fiercely opposed by some environmental organizations and Delta interests, and it’s been a flashpoint in the discussion even though the legislation doesn't explicitly include it.

On Thursday, a joint statement opposing the proposed water package was released by a mix of San Francisco elected officials and community leaders, including state Senator Leland Yee, San Francisco Board of Supervisors President David Chiu; Supervisors David Campos, Eric Mar, John Avalos, Chris Daly, and Ross Mirkarimi; Sierra Club SF Bay chapter executive committee member John Rizzo, and Jennifer Clary of Clean Water Action.

“We are concerned that the current water legislation does little to immediately begin restoring the Delta and the Bay ecosystems,” the joint statement noted. “Our fisheries are endangered and need help now. The current proposal lacks an effective mechanism to bring about real environmental change, and will likely result in another layer of ineffective bureaucracy and continued litigation.”

The statement also expressed opposition to the use of general obligation bonds to finance new water projects, which the Senate formally approved last night. “This water package unfairly burdens those who can least afford it,” the statement notes. “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. Over the past several years, the state budget has been passed on the backs of students, the poor, and the most vulnerable Californians.”

Zeke Grader, Executive Director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fisherman’s Associations, has witnessed the salmon fishing industry take a nosedive in the past two years as fish populations have plummeted, a suspected result of excessive water pumping out of the Delta.

"The Bay-Delta is not a reservoir; it is the most important estuary on the West coast and gives life to many of our coastal fisheries,” Grader said. “Schwarzenegger has made it clear he is willing to drain the Delta if it means more water for land speculators and developers. We have little faith [the Delta Stewardship Council] will support and act on the pressing needs of our Delta and our fisheries, especially if it means putting a halt to the South's attempts at a water grab. This back-room, special-interest bill is fishy for sure, but definitely not because it will restore our industry to its former health."

Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla, executive director of Restore the Delta, told the Guardian that Delta interests felt their voices had been lost as the bill moved forward. “The Delta Counties are in the middle of the bullseye,” a Delta representative testified at an Oct. 28 hearing on the water legislation in Sacramento. “We will be dramatically impacted by state policy.”

Some environmental organizations, including the Natural Resources Defense Council and the California League of Conservation Voters, are in support of the legislation. The San Francisco Public Utilities Commission has also expressed its support.