Water & Drought

Valley officials throw support behind larger water bond

A cross-section of city and county officials, farming and business interests joined together Wednesday at Fresno City Hall to support a multibillion-dollar water bond that's nearly twice as large as what Gov. Jerry Brown wants.

The governor this week pledged support for a $6 billion water bond for November's ballot -- but no more -- because of concerns about long-term debt.

Also in play is a $9.9 billion water bond proposal authored by Assemblyman Henry T. Perea, D-Fresno, now being negotiated in the state Legislature. But time is running out: The Legislature must reach a compromise on a lower-priced bond package sometime this month, or else an $11.1 billion plan will go to voters.

The group at Fresno City Hall sent a letter of support to legislators with about 150 signatures from community leaders backing the largest bond.

Local officials say they also support Perea's slightly smaller measure.

The water bond event in Fresno was one of two in California on Wednesday. Assembly Minority Leader Connie Conway was among Republican and Democratic lawmakers who stated support to increase funding for water-storage projects at the site of a proposed reservoir in an agricultural valley north of Sacramento.

Conway, R-Tulare, said additional water storage is Republicans' top priority. The GOP will be comfortable with the $11.1 billion water bond currently on the November ballot, she said.

The governor's version reduces funding for new and expanded reservoirs by $1 billion.

"Storage is integral," said Conway, standing in the backyard of a rancher's home that would be voluntarily demolished for the reservoir. "You can talk about restoration of the delta, you can talk about recycling, you can talk about all the things you want to do. That takes water."

At the Fresno press conference, Tulare County Supervisor Allen Ishida said the governor's $6 billion proposal "substantially undermines what we are trying to do" and is far less than the $68 billion high-speed rail plan the governor supports.

The bond amount is now in negotiations between the state Assembly and Senate leadership and the governor's office, Perea said. It requires two-thirds support from legislators to reach the ballot.

A Public Policy Institute of California poll released this week shows 51% of California voters support the $11.1 billion bond, with a sampling margin error of plus or minus 4.7%. As the cost is reduced, support rises.

Manuel Cunha of the Fresno-based Nisei Farmers League said the Perea-backed amount gets 54% backing of state voters. Support grows to 59% for a smaller bond, the PPIC said.

Perea said the governor's plan is not large enough to meet statewide needs, pointing to Brown's proposed allocation of $400 million for clean drinking water. Perea's plan has $1 billion for clean drinking water, which he admits still may not be enough.

He said he expects a compromise somewhere between $8 billion and $9 billion.

"It helps us come to a conclusion that addresses the many regional needs," he said. "But anything below that will pit region vs. region."

The bond also has the support of state Senator Andy Vidak, R-Hanford, who touts its bipartisan backing.

"The current ($11.1 billion) bond on the ballot -- negotiated and agreed to by a bipartisan group of legislators including Senate President Pro Tem (Darrell) Steinberg -- contains the minimum $3 billion needed for surface water storage," he wrote in a letter dated Wednesday.

Vidak said funding for water storage already was lowered through compromise and shouldn't be reduced further.

The bond will cover water projects ranging from dams and reservoirs to urban water recycling, groundwater contamination cleanup and sustaining the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. Included in the bond project list is the $2.5 billion Temperance Flat Dam, east of Fresno, that could store 1.3-million acre-feet of water. One acre-foot is equal to 325,851 gallons.

The bond must be voted on soon, said Barry Bedwell, president of the Fresno-based California Grape and Tree Fruit League.

"If we don't focus on our ability to increase our system and the infrastructure to provide water for long-term sustainability, we're all in trouble -- that's just not agriculture, that's all of California," he said. "So, I think it's very important to note that this bond has to be done now. We can't kick the can down the road any further."

Brown plans to talk with lawmakers throughout the week about a revamped water bond, the governor's spokesman, Evan Westrup, told reporters Wednesday.

The current water bond on the November ballot was negotiated by a different set of lawmakers in 2009 under then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

The negotiations are complicated by the fact that it will take two-thirds votes in the Assembly and Senate and Brown's signature to replace the bond currently on the fall ballot, listed as Proposition 43.

The bond has been delayed from going to a vote several times because lawmakers were worried voters wouldn't swallow its $11 billion price tag. It also has been criticized because it is filled with special-interest projects, some of which have little if anything to do with solving the state's water problems.

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