Politics & Government

Water plans back on tap

SACRAMENTO -- Last week's court ruling to reduce delta water pumping has led to renewed calls for a state-financed solution to California's water needs -- a deal that could include money for a new dam near Fresno.

But with only about a week left in the legislative session, time is running out to strike a compromise on one of the most politically charged issues in the state.

Lawmakers must find common ground on competing proposals by Gov. Schwarzenegger and Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata, D-Oakland.

The governor's $5.95 billion plan includes money for two state-built dams. Perata's $5 billion proposal frees local water agencies to spend money how they see fit -- for dams, ground-water storage or water recycling, for instance. Both plans seek to put a bond on the ballot in 2008, possibly as soon as the Feb. 5 primary election.

Perata, who has been in negotiations with the governor, on Wednesday morning gave the strongest indication yet that he was prepared to strike a deal, even if it means dropping his long-held opposition to state-financed dams.

A ruling Friday by a federal judge in Fresno "is so far-reaching it could have such a deleterious effect on the state's economy ... that everything has to be looked at and a compromise has to ensue," he said in an interview.

Yet finding consensus on a water plan has proved tough.

The governor's plan failed to get by a legislative committee earlier this year. Meanwhile, Perata has yet to get his plan in legislative form. Perata's press office on Wednesday accused the Assembly of blocking his proposal.

Steve Maviglio, a spokesman for Assembly Speaker Fabian Núñez, D-Los Angeles, said the Assembly needs more details about the plan. In an e-mail, he wrote: "This is a complex issue involving billions of dollars. If the Senate has a plan, then the legislative leaders and the governor should be informed about what it is. That hasn't happened."

Schwarzenegger spokesman Aaron McLear said there's work to be done, but "we're still negotiating and the talks are going well."

The legislative session ends a week from Friday, though the governor has said he would consider calling a special session to address major issues.

The new urgency follows a decision last week by U.S. District Judge Oliver Wanger, who ordered less pumping in a bid to protect the delta smelt, an endangered, 3-inch-long fish considered to be an indicator of the delta's health.

State officials say the decision could lead in average years to a 35% cut in deliveries to San Joaquin Valley farmers and urban water users in the Bay Area and Southern California.

At a Capitol news conference Wednesday, farmers, building-industry officials and regional water managers warned of major economic consequences. In the San Joaquin Valley, farmers will be forced to leave open land idle and make major changes to irrigation plans, resulting in crop losses, said Stephen Patricio, a Firebaugh melon grower and chairman of the Western Growers Association.

The decision will result in up to 236,000 acres of farmland taken out of production, a decrease of as much as $294 million in production revenue and up to 4,000 farm jobs lost, according to a forthcoming study by the association. The study looks at what the court decision would mean in an average water year.

Meanwhile, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California is exploring major conservation efforts that could lead to water rationing, officials said.

Schwarzenegger's plan includes $4 billion for two dams, including $2 billion that would be paid by growers and others who would benefit. The preferred sites are Temperance Flat east of Fresno and a location on the west side of the Sacramento Valley called Sites Reservoir. The plan also includes money for ground-water storage and improvements to the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

Department of Water Resources director Lester Snow said at the news conference that the state needs to strengthen delta water channels so that water inhabited by smelt does not mix with water sucked by the pumps. One controversial proposal would pipe water around the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to Southern California and the San Francisco Bay Area.

New dams, Snow said, would allow the state to save more water in wet years that could be used in dry years.

But such wet years only occur about once a decade, so investing state money in a new dam has questionable merits, said Barry Nelson, a senior analyst with the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Siding with environmentalists, Democrats have argued that local water users -- such as the Valley's agricultural community -- should commit to picking up some of the cost before a bond is put before voters.

A dam at Temperance is estimated to cost about $2 billion. Under the governor's plan, users would not be asked to chip in until after the bond passes.