Water wars resume with Delta tunnels, bond revamp

4:42 PM, Mar 11, 2013   |    comments
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2013 may not be a year of major changes in California's long running saga over its water supply, but it is poised to be a year where some big decisions are made.

"You can just feel it coming," says Phil Isenberg, chair of the Delta Stewardship Council and a veteran of the last three decades in the state's water wars.

In part, that sense of a rising tide in the water battle may stem from two major issues both making their way to the stage: details on Gov. Jerry Brown's call for twin tunnels that would dig under the periphery of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, and the deadline-driven push at the Capitol to downsize an $11.1 billion bond measure before it appears on next November's statewide ballot.

Though it's the one with the longer timeline, the governor's tunnels proposal will get the first return to the spotlight.  State water officials are expected to unveil new details by week's end on the Bay Delta Conservation Plan, which includes the proposed 35-mile Sacramento County to Contra Costa County infrastructure mega-project.

The project's cost estimates began at $13 billion and seem to be going upward from there, and would require a careful partnership of federal, state, regional, and local officials.  Since Brown rolled out the general overview -- with his own colorful take on things -- last July, it's been the focus of intense criticism and even a feature length anti-tunnels documentary.

It also, until now, may have overshadowed other more immediate water issues.

"Even if the tunnels are approved, which I think is going to be a great fight," says state Sen. Lois Wolk, D-Davis, "we have tremendous needs in the Delta, we have tremendous needs statewide."

Which is where legislative efforts come in to revamp, and shrink, the water bond crafted back in 2009 but delayed three full election cycles -- from 2010 to 2012 and now to November 2014. The reason for the delay was pretty simple: there were fears the voters would see the bond as too big and reject it.  Now, legislators say it's important to go back and take another look at the bond's priorities -- which currently range from surface storage to drought relief.

"Times have changed," said Wolk after a recent Senate hearing on the subject, "and it's time to take a look at what the bond should be used for."

One bright spot from that hearing: there's already approved, but unspent, bond authority that could -- alone -- downsize the bond by some $4 billion.  The nonpartisan Legislative Analyst's Office told legislators that available cash would come in equal parts from two 2006 measures, Proposition 84 and Proposition 1E.

Cracking open the 2009 water bond won't be so easy, as it took former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger months to navigate the murky rivers of interest group politics last time.  The bond also became criticized for pork-barrel deal making, growing in size after an initial proposal in the summer of 2008.

The final deal, though, did offer something everyone seemed to support: help for the Delta, where diversions of water have made big changes over the decades in the ecosystem of the freshwater estuary.  The 2009 agreement made Delta protection and water supply "co-equal" goals.

"That was a gutsy decision," says the Delta Stewardship Council's Isenberg.  "But making that work, in practice, is a lot harder than most people would think."


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