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September 4, 2013
Editorial: Wait to debate water bond, then improve it

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(Sept. 4 -- By the Editorial Board)

With dry conditions igniting fires statewide and reservoirs dropping ever lower, state lawmakers should be thinking about water. The good thing - they are. They are thinking about a 2014 water bond.

Both chambers have produced legislation to rescind and scale back the bloated $11.14 billion water bond that, if left unchanged, would head to the ballot in 2014 and face certain defeat. The total amounts would be $5.6 billlion in the Senate version vs. $6.5 billion in the Assembly bill. Both would invest in clean drinking water, an issue that has risen in priority - particularly in the San Joaquin Valley - since the Legislature originally approved a bond proposal. Both have pots of money for water storage and watershed projection.

There are differences between these two pieces of legislation, both in substance and the process that produced them. Senate Bill 42, by Sen. Lois Wolk, D-Davis, was drafted following several stakeholder meetings, including ones with Wolk's constituents in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. As a result, it includes $500 million in proposed investments in Central Valley Flood Protection Plan projects, a priority for flood-threatened Delta and Sacramento residents. It also gives the Legislature more control over how storage money is spent, a priority for many environmental groups.

Assembly Bill 1331, by Assemblyman Anthony Rendon, D-Lakewood, is larger in size than Wolk's, and it followed a series of public hearings in the Assembly Water, Parks and Wildlife Committee, which Rendon chairs. Those hearings resulted in a set of principles for the bond that were released in July. Last week, Rendon released an amended version of Assembly Bill 1331 based on those earlier principles.

Both of these bills are solid frameworks for discussion on a new water bond. But, as is nearly always the case, the two chambers differ on how to march forward. The Assembly wants to push its bill through this session, even though the bill language has been in print for just over a week. Wolk says she is fine with waiting until 2014 to debate and enact final legislation.

Given the divides, the Legislature would be wise to hold off until next year. While Rendon fears that amendments during an election year could result in the bill being larded up with pork projects, the pressure will still be there to keep the numbers low - polling shows that voters won't stomach a bond much higher than what Rendon has proposed. In addition, the frugal guy who occupies the Governor's Office will want to keep the numbers down.

Extra time will also allow both chambers to improve the two proposals. Why, for instance, are both bills stingy on funds for restoring Delta wildlife habitat? The answer, according to both Wolk and Rendon, is they don't want the water bond to be seen as facilitating the Bay Delta Conservation Plan, which hopes to marry a controversial water tunnel project to habitat restoration.

We think this political calculus goes overboard. Regardless of whether the tunnels are built - we have strongly criticized the process to date - the state needs to invest in restoring habitat in the Delta. Restoration could help fish and the entire ecosystem - a goal that is good in itself and also helpful in reducing conflicts over water diversions. Lawmakers should recognize that, and not let the unsavory parts of BDCP negate the appetizing ones.

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