Sep 12 2009

CA: No water bills; special session ahead?

Published by at 5:57 pm under California

The California Legislature adjourned for the year early in the morning on September 12, without passing any of the major water legislation that preoccupied large chunks of the session in recent months. Even as legislators gave up on passage in time for this session, however some of them were talking about the idea of a special legislative session later this year devoted specifically to water.

Governor Arnold Schwartzenegger had specifically pushed for a package of water legislation to be passed by the legislature. It proved controversial, however, and legislative leaders said as the session ended that not enough votes were available to pass it. A spokesman for the governor said he was as yet undecided about whether to call a special session.

Senate President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) remarked as the session ended: “We will not be moving the water bills this evening. Everyone agrees that we are close and that we have made a decade’s worth of progress in just a few weeks but there is still some more work to do. We will continue to negotiate in the coming weeks and we will bring the package up for a vote. I encourage the Governor to call a Special Session on water. I remain confident that the legislature can pass a comprehensive water package that will restore the Delta’s fragile ecosystem and ensure a reliable water supply for California’s economic growth.”

Only a day before, he had sounded notes of confidence with the approval of five major legislative conference reports on water.

The water effort was nothing if not ambitious – they were even collectively referred to as “water reform,” and the ambition was spurred by a drought year which has even led to public protests over water policy – though the direction of the protests have varied somewhat by region.

Much of it involved changing state law and policy, but part of it was also wrapped up in a $12 billion bonding effort, and that financial piece proved to be among the most difficult pieces to obtain, since a two-thirds vote was needed in each chamber. (There were also differences of opinion about whether the bond effort should be rolled into one measure, or split into two separate proposals to be voted on in 2010 and 2014.)

The proposals included a new reservoir off the Sacramento River, but most of the activity concerned flows in the Delta area and the San Joaquin in central California. They would mandate specific flows in the Delta and environmental preservation (including fish habitats), along with some enhancements in state water conservation, and creation of a Delta conservancy to help endangered species. Environmental groups, however, were divided about the merits of the bills and their price tag.

New flow requirements would have been installed in the Delta, and a state official would have been designated to monitor them. State regulatory clout over water rights and use monitoring would have been stepped up. A cut in urban water use of 20%, largely through conservation, was included. But they also included an effort to move forward with the long-envisioned Peripheral Canal, so named because it would move water from northern California to the south around the Delta area.

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