Water bills come up short; special session to follow?

Issue Date: September 16, 2009
Kate Campbell

The legislative water bucket came up empty last week, as last-minute wrangling over a hastily conceived package of bills failed to produce a comprehensive water solution at the state Capitol. But officials said they will keep trying.

The Legislature was unable to take final votes on a proposed package of water bills, as lawmakers worked against a Friday deadline for passage.

In the wake of the water package's failure, Democrats called for a special legislative session on water this fall. Matt David, communications director for Gov. Schwarzenegger, said at Ag Alert® press time that while the request to call a special legislative session on the state's water crisis was being considered, a final decision had not been made.

The California Farm Bureau Federation agreed with dozens of other stakeholder organizations that, although a comprehensive water package is urgently needed to solve the state's water problems, the five-bill package considered by the Legislature at the eleventh hour last week was not adequate.

"Farm Bureau and many others were opposed to the bill package for a number of reasons," said Danny Merkley, CFBF director of water resources.

He pointed out that the bills did not provide for new surface water storage. They did not have a guarantee for continuous funding of water projects and he said a number of elements in the bills actually would have hindered recovery of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta ecosystem. The bills also did not protect existing water rights.

In the waning days of the legislative session, Democrats had bundled the five-bill proposal into one policy bill and—to meet primarily Republican demands for a balanced funding approach that recognized public and private benefits—had moved a $12 billion bond measure into play to pay for projects included in that policy bill.Gov. Schwarzenegger had indicated he would not sign water-related bills that did not have ongoing funding support.

Sen. Dave Cogdill, R-Modesto, who serves as vice chairman of the Senate Natural Resources and Water Committee, said, "We have an obligation to get a comprehensive water solution accomplished, but what was on the table was not a serious attempt to get water flowing in our state and help our economy get back on track."

Assemblyman Jim Nielsen, R-Redding, said the conference committee process focused on what he called "a hardcore environmental agenda, not about compromise and what might be best for California.

"As the clock ticked, I argued that the issue of water is not about the outcome of the next election, but about the future of our grandchildren's children," Nielsen said. "As it turned out, there weren't enough votes to pass the policy bill so it never was brought to the floor. For the people of California, that's good. Now we need to start meaningful discussions in a true bipartisan manner."

Among the grave concerns expressed by Farm Bureau policy experts about the cobbled-together policy bill was the likelihood of growing state government at a time when taxpayers and the economy can least afford it. They said the bills would have created duplicative bureaucratic reviews and approvals that would have slowed or stopped much-needed solutions to the water crisis.

For example, the State Water Resources Control Board would have been required to develop new delta flow standards and install yet another delta water official to enforce board orders.

The proposed water package mandated a statewide groundwater monitoring program and a 20 percent cut in statewide per capita urban water use by 2020. And it would have pumped up the water board's authority to investigate and prosecute alleged water rights violations or disputed diversions.

Despite the problems with the legislation, Merkley added that "significant progress has been made in recent weeks to improve understanding of what is needed from the Legislature to ensure a reliable water supply for all Californians."

Merkley stressed that Farm Bureau remains committed "to working with members of the Legislature, whether in regular or special session, to address the state's water crisis. We agree that some progress has been made in sorting out issues and we don't want to lose momentum and start all over again."

He said Farm Bureau's priorities are for legislation that will help ensure water use efficiency, enhance water supplies through new water storage, protect water rights, assure balanced water allocation and efficient water delivery systems for agriculture throughout California.

"We're prepared to take up discussions of these critical matters, and we will be analyzing any new legislation introduced with the aim of solving the crisis and putting agriculture and the state on a firm path to a secure water future," Merkley said.

(Kate Campbell is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at kcampbell@cfbf.com.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.