SACRAMENTO — The Legislature adjourned for its summer recess Thursday without meeting its top remaining priority: overhauling the $11.1 billion water bond scheduled to go before voters this fall.
The existing measure, which will appear on the November ballot as Proposition 43, passed in 2009 under then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, but it has been delayed twice. Most lawmakers have agreed it is too large, filled with special-interest pork and too contentious to win voter approval. But they have struggled to find a compromise.
“The most difficult thing about this whole discussion is it took six years last time,” said Assembly Republican Leader Connie Conway, who served during the last negotiations. “It’s like a telenovela with really ugly actors: It’s drama, drama, drama.”
The deadline to change the ballot measure is sometime in August.
A replacement water bond requires support from Gov. Jerry Brown and two-thirds of lawmakers in each house, including Republicans in the Senate, where Democrats are short of a supermajority. All are under pressure from environmentalists, farmers, water exporters and trade unions, among other interests. Even within parties, lawmakers have been divided among regional lines for water needs.
Reaching an agreement has become more pressing in recent years because California is in the third year of a historic drought. At stake in the negotiations are new dams and storage prioritized by Central Valley lawmakers and Republicans, groundwater-contamination cleanup favored by Los Angeles-area lawmakers and wildlife and conservation projects pushed by environmentalists.
“How you meet all those needs and bring the costs down is very difficult,” said Assemblyman Henry Perea, D-Fresno.
Water storage is among the most contentious issues, with Republicans demanding stronger protections and funding and environmentalists raising concerns about diverting water from fish and wildlife. Provisions to restore parts of the Northern California delta are seen as promoting Brown’s proposal for freeway-size tunnels to divert water to farms and residents in the south. Senate Democrats say provoking a regional water battle ensures its defeat.
Brown, running for re-election on a platform of fiscal restraint, has pushed for a $6 billion bond. That leaves legislative leaders feeling pulled in opposite directions as they seek to cut spending while appeasing interests to win votes.
Senate Democrats unveiled a $7.5 billion plan for water projects Thursday, after a larger plan failed to pass a floor vote last week.
“In the water world, you can’t always get everything you want,” said Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento.
But the plan reduces funding for storage, and supporters say it takes a neutral position on the tunnels. Both are sticking points for some Senate Republicans, who did not support SB848.
Meanwhile, negotiations have stalled in the Assembly, where Democrats have yet to coalesce around a single proposal as interest groups demand more spending. Will Shuck, a spokesman for Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins, said the speaker is pushing members and others involved in negotiations to have realistic expectations.
California is in a state of drought emergency after a string of several relatively dry winters. Farmland is being left fallow, dozens of communities are imposing mandatory water restrictions and court rulings have ordered that more water be released from reservoirs to sustain fish species in Northern California’s delta.
Lawmakers have the option of sticking with the existing $11.1 billion bond on the ballot if they fail to reach an agreement. Some Republicans have touted the bond for being comprehensive, despite its shortcomings.
“If that’s the strategy, that’s a heck of a risk to take on behalf of millions of Californians depending on additional water investment in this state,” Steinberg said.