Water & Drought

Lawmakers aim for elusive state water deal

SACRAMENTO -- Lawmakers remained at odds Friday over major water legislation, but still are talking in hopes of reaching a deal that has eluded them for years.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger expressed confidence about the prospects of compromise at a rally organized by a Valley-based group.

But in private negotiating sessions, Democrats and Republicans still are arguing over many issues, including borrowing for water projects, complicated water-rights laws and proposed conservation mandates.

Using what little leverage he has, the governor has threatened to veto "a lot of their legislation," if lawmakers don't strike a deal. His deadline to sign or veto about 700 bills passed this year is midnight Sunday.

"We're prepared to work through the weekend, if necessary," said Senate Leader Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento. But he said the veto threat was not a factor because "I can't work any faster than I'm working."

At an afternoon rally, Schwarzenegger promised action.

"For three years, we have been talking about this and pushing and negotiating," he said. "No more of that, we are sick and tired of the dialogue, we want to see the action now."

The event was organized by the Latino Water Coalition, a group that includes Valley mayors and water agencies.

Sticking points include the size of a bond to pay for dams, groundwater storage, upgrades in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and more.

Sen. Dave Cogdill, R-Modesto, has pushed for a $12 billion bond that would be repaid from the state's general fund. He is backed by Valley farm groups, which want at least $3 billion for dams -- including a proposed project east of Fresno near Millerton Lake.

Manuel Cunha, president of Nisei Farmers League in Fresno, said he wants a bond as big as $15 billion, because the "magnitude of the projects" warrants it.

But environmental groups, which hold sway with Democrats, are pushing for strong conservation rules over expensive new projects that they say should be paid for by water users.

"Water held behind those dams will only benefit a few," said Jim Metropulos, a lobbyist for the Sierra Club.

The latest conservation proposal calls for a 20% reduction in urban per capita water use by the end of 2020, while requiring farm users to adopt plans to manage water more efficiently.

Republicans fear the mandate could lead to private lawsuits against users that don't meet the goals.

"Making sure we have plans to conserve water is important, but we don't want to create a full-employment act for lawyers," said Assembly GOP leader Sam Blakeslee of San Luis Obispo.

Assembly Member Jared Huffman, a key Democrat on water issues, said Republicans "believe that anyone who fails to meet their conservation target should be protected against that ever being used against them in any way. In other words, they want to make it meaningless."

The parties also are battling over a proposal to punish water users who illegally divert water. Democrats say the plan would free up more water for better uses. But Republicans say the plan is heavy-handed and could lead to removal of water rights for inadvertent mistakes.