Politics & Government

Assembly Dems say it might be better to postpone water bond

SACRAMENTO -- With time running out to get a water bond on the February ballot, Assembly Democrats said Thursday that it might make more sense to wait until the June or November elections.

"We probably only have one chance to put something on the ballot and have it pass," said Assembly Member John Laird, D-Santa Cruz. "We shouldn't feel pressure to do something by a deadline."

Gov. Schwarzenegger -- who called a special session to address the state's massive water needs -- is still pushing to get a bond before voters on Feb. 5. But to do so, lawmakers must beat an Oct. 16 deadline.

Laird, a leader in water negotiations, said lawmakers are not giving up on the goal.

But more than two weeks into the session, it's not clear how much progress, if any, has been made.

Republicans are backing Schwarzenegger's $9 billion proposal, which puts a major emphasis on new dams, including one east of Fresno.

Democrats favor ground-water storage and water conservation and are against earmarking money for specific dams.

Party leaders have been talking for weeks, but the first legislative hearing on the issue was not held until Thursday.

Even so, Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata, D-Oakland, has tentative plans to hold a floor vote on a bond package as soon as Tuesday.

His $5 billion proposal would free local water agencies to spend money how they see fit. It's not clear whether the plan would garner the necessary two Republican votes to pass the Senate.

"We're working hard to have something for February," said Perata spokeswoman Lynda Gledhill. Leaders are "hopeful and optimistic."

The state's vexing water issues were laid before lawmakers at Thursday's hearing.

Jay Lund, a water expert and professor at University of California at Davis, presented a list of 11 major water problems in the state. The list touched almost every region, from the deteriorating Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta -- the state's water hub -- to the Tulare Lake Basin, a major source of irrigation water that is suffering from salt intrusion.

"We have a lot of water problems," Lund said.

But the search for solutions has eluded lawmakers for years and seems to always come down to a debate over dams.

At the hearing, Democrats seized on testimony showing that new conservation efforts could save as much as 3.1 million acre-feet of water a year, triple the amount provided by building new dams. They also were pleased by data showing the immense potential for ground-water storage systems.

But Republicans pointed out that dams are needed to capture the large amounts of water needed to refresh ground-water banks.

"A recharge system is a reservoir," said Assembly Member Doug La Malfa, R-Oroville.

The governor's proposal authorizes the state to pay for as much as half the cost of two new dams and one expanded dam, for a total of $5.1 billion. Historically, the state has contributed far less. Debt from the State Water Project -- the largest state-built water system in the United States -- was paid off almost entirely by contractors who receive water from the project, according to testimony given Thursday by the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst's Office.

Laird said debt payments on the governor's proposal -- which he estimated to be about $650 million a year -- would suck general fund money that could be used for social programs.

But Assembly Member Juan Arambula, a Fresno Democrat who bucks his party to support dams, said the cost of not building reservoirs would have its own social costs -- especially in the central San Joaquin Valley, which needs new water to grow crops. If farmers don't have enough water, farmworkers will lose jobs, he said, and "we will see significant unemployment rates."

Fresno Mayor Alan Autry, an outspoken supporter of the proposed Temperance Flat dam near Fresno, echoed the sentiments at a water rally outside the Capitol. The event was attended by several Valley schoolchildren.

By passing the governor's plan, Autry said, "we can secure the future of these young people."