Politics & Government

Dam dispute stymies water talks

SACRAMENTO -- A Democratic water bond proposal was defeated Tuesday in the state Senate, likely killing any chance of getting a bond measure on the February ballot.

As expected, Republicans opposed the $6.8 billion measure, which failed 23-12, four votes short.

Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata said he will now try to get a measure on the November 2008 ballot by gathering voter signatures instead of going through the Legislature.

"Today we're finished. We'll take the next step," he said at pre-vote appearance before the Sacramento Press Club as it became clear his plan would not draw Republican votes.

Republicans are considering their own signature-gathering drive, raising the possibility that voters would be faced with two ballot measures.

Gov. Schwarzenegger, who is pushing a $9.1 billion plan, held out hope for a last-minute legislative compromise.

"I think it is always important to realize that there is a lot of Kabuki going on this building," he said at a news conference. "We just see things a little differently, but I think in the end we can come together on this."

The governor a month ago called a special session to address the state's water woes. Problems include polluted aquifers, the deteriorating Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and predicted water supply shortages. But a partisan fight over dams has stifled attempts at compromise.

The governor and Republican lawmakers say state-funded dams are the only way to significantly boost the state's water supplies. Democrats favor ground-water storage, recycling and conservation.

Schwarzenegger's plan, written by Sen. Dave Cogdill, R-Modesto, earmarks $5.1 billion for two new dams -- including one near Fresno -- and one expanded dam. The state would pay for up to 50% of the projects, with local users paying the rest.

Perata's plan would allow local water agencies to bid on $2 billion of state money for water-supply projects. Both plans include money for delta repairs.

If two measures go to the ballot, the fight will likely pit environmentalists -- who oppose dams -- against business and farm groups.

Tim Quinn, executive director of the Association of California Water Agencies, said the battle should be avoided at all costs, because both measures would likely fail.

"The probability of success with competing measures is very low," he said. "The public gets confused, and they vote no."

Quinn's group has spoken out in support of the governor's plan. But one of its largest members, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, has lined up behind Perata's plan. Quinn said meetings were still taking place and a legislative compromise is still possible.

Assembly Republican Leader Mike Villines of Clovis, who was involved in talks Tuesday, put the chances of a deal at about 30%. Lawmakers have until Monday to get a bond on the Feb. 5 ballot.

"We're still trying to get something put together," Villines said.

"But it is becoming clearer and clearer that ... Democrats are not prepared to have a rational conversation on water storage as a component of a comprehensive fix."

Democrats pointed out that the money in Perata's plan could be used for dams, as long as such projects win out over other alternatives.

Sen. Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, urged Republicans to "allow competition to determine what gets the government dollars."