Politics & Government

Bigger water plan is unveiled

SACRAMENTO -- Gov. Schwarzenegger unveiled an updated water plan Tuesday that nearly doubles the price tag of an earlier proposal and includes a significant new state investment in dams -- an idea that Democrats have long opposed.

More than half of the $9 billion plan would be dedicated to three dams, including one near Fresno, with remaining money for regional water projects and to repair the deteriorating Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

Lawmakers have only a few weeks to reach a deal in time to get a bond on the Feb. 5 ballot -- a goal of both parties.

The governor has called a special legislative session to address the issue, but prospects of a compromise are uncertain considering the key differences between the two leading plans.

Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata, D-Oakland, is pushing a $5 billion plan that would free local water agencies to spend money how they see fit -- for dams, ground-water storage or water recycling.

Schwarzenegger's proposal is more state-driven, authorizing the state to pay up to half the cost of the dams.

"Our water crisis has gotten worse with the dry conditions and the recent federal court action that is going to have a devastating impact on the state's economy," the governor said in a statement, referring to the recent decision by a federal judge in Fresno to reduce delta water pumping. "We need a comprehensive fix."

Democrats are unlikely to go along with spending so much on dams, which would take at least a decade to build.

Assembly Member John Laird, D-Santa Cruz, said the state has historically paid no more than 3% of the cost of dams, well under the share that the governor is advocating.

"We'll look at everything in [the governor's plan] but it's really going to have to be judged on its merits -- and I think one of the biggest issues is financing," said Laird, who will lead Assembly Democrats during water talks.

The governor's new plan is similar to a $5.95 billion plan that Democrats killed earlier this year.

Administration officials hope the recent federal court decision will prod lawmakers into action.

The ruling by U.S. District Judge Oliver Wanger orders less delta pumping to protect the delta smelt, an endangered, 3-inch-long fish.

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.

The governor's proposal includes $5.1 billion for dams, more than double the amount included in his earlier proposal. Administration officials said the increase was due to rising construction costs and the fact that the new plan includes one more dam -- expansion of Los Vaqueros Reservoir in Contra Costa County.

Also included, as before, is money for two new dams: one east of Fresno in an area known as Temperance Flat and one on the west side of the Sacramento Valley called Sites Reservoir.

Like the earlier proposal, local water agencies would have to pay for half or more of the cost.

The state's share would be determined based on the "public benefit."

Those benefits could include increased flood protection or a stabilization of river flows to aid spawning salmon.

The governor's plan includes $500 million for ground-water storage and $1.9 billion for environmental improvements in the delta, such as habitat restoration. Another $1 billion is reserved for grants for conservation and regional water projects.

By statute, lawmakers have until Sept. 27 to get a bond on the Feb. 5 ballot, though there might be some wiggle room.

Assembly Republican Leader Mike Villines of Clovis said lawmakers might have until as late as Oct. 14.

Villines said the governor's proposal marks a starting point in negotiations, noting that the dam allocation is likely to drop.

"There's a lot of work to be done, but something had to be put in print ... so we could start to negotiate," he said.