Politics & Government

Voters may face two water ballot measures next year

SACRAMENTO -- With lawmakers unable to reach a compromise on a water bond, voters might be faced with two separate measures in November 2008 -- a Gov. Schwarzenegger-backed plan that emphasizes dams and a Democratic plan that does not.

Authors of the competing water legislation raised the possibility of dueling initiatives on Monday, acknowledging that the prospects of a bipartisan deal are fading.

"We would hope we would continue to work over the next few days and find some middle ground here," said Sen. Dave Cogdill, R-Modesto, author of the governor's proposal. But "it's hard to see [how] we'd be able to do that."

His bill -- which would have put a $9.1 billion bond measure on the Feb. 5 ballot -- was defeated Monday by the Democratic-controlled Senate Natural Resources and Water Committee. Instead, the committee passed a competing bill by Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata, D-Oakland.

Asked if he could get the needed two GOP votes to pass the full Senate, Perata said, "Honestly, I don't think so."

Even if it ekes past the Senate, the bill faces an even stiffer challenge in the Assembly, where Republicans have pledged to vote against it.

If the bill fails, Perata said he would pursue an outside ballot initiative because "I will not let all this work go to waste."

Supporters of Schwarzenegger's plan also are considering launching a signature-gathering drive to get their plan on the ballot.

"It's been planned for a while -- the wheels are turning," said Mario Santoyo, assistant general manager of the Friant Water Users Authority, which is pushing for a dam at Temperance Flat east of Fresno.

The effort likely would be led by business groups, supporters said.

The governor still hopes for a last-minute compromise in the Legislature.

"We're still focused on getting a comprehensive solution done in the special session," said Schwarzenegger spokesman Aaron McLear.

To get a bond on the February ballot, lawmakers must strike a deal by Oct. 16. So far, lawmakers have been unable to bridge the deep philosophical divide over building dams.

Schwarzenegger's plan earmarks $5.1 billion for two new dams -- including the one near Fresno -- and one expanded dam.

Perata's plan, which was recently increased to $6.8 billion, would allow local water agencies to bid on $2 billion of state money for water supply projects. Both plans include money to fix the deteriorating Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

Environmentalists have long supported Perata's plan. He recently won the backing of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, which provides water to 18 million people.

Meanwhile, many Central Valley officials are pushing the governor's plan.

Under Perata's plan, nothing precludes an agency from spending the money on a dam. But Republicans are skeptical that there is enough money in the pot.

The three dams targeted by Cogdill's bill would cost a combined $10.3 billion, according to estimates.

The proposal calls for the state to pay as much as half the costs of the dams with local users paying for the rest. The state's final share would be determined by the "statewide benefit" of each project, including flood protection or new water supplies to aid fisheries.

Historically, the state has contributed far less for dams. But Schwarzenegger administration officials said the new investment was needed to boost the state's water supply "backbone" while dealing with the massive flooding and extended droughts that could result from global warming.

"Our water future is going to be less reliable and more risky than our water past," Department of Water Resources director Lester Snow said at Monday's hearing.

But Democrats criticized the plan for lacking details on how the public benefit portion would be calculated.

"We're asked to make a decision around a particular amount of money and we don't even know [the] percentage," said committee chairman Sen. Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento.