With the governor's controversial Delta tunnel project looming in the background, lawmakers on Monday failed to advance a leading Senate proposal to put a revised water bond on the November ballot.
The Senate voted 22-9 for the $10.5 billion borrowing measure, five votes short of the required two-thirds threshold. It marked the first floor vote on any of a crop of new water bond proposals to replace a $11.1 billion bond placed on the ballot in 2009 and delayed twice.
Republicans who rose in opposition to the measure did not voice a unified reason for rejecting it. Some even sounded hopeful, with Sen. Andy Vidak, R-Hanford, saying the bill "is getting really, really close." But the caucus balked at the clout the bond affords to interests in the Delta region, according to Senate Minority Leader Bob Huff, R-Diamond Bar.
"The main issue was it was a conservancy, Delta-centric bond," Huff said after the vote. "When we look at our constituencies, most of them are flatly opposed to it."
A withering drought has whetted Sacramento's thirst for a new water bond. Lawmakers have introduced several water bond proposals intended to replace the 2009 measure currently slated for the November ballot. The general consensus among lawmakers is that the $11.1 billion bond, passed in a fall 2009 special session, would fail if put before voters.
As the field of potential new bond proposals has narrowed, Senate Bill 848 by Sen. Lois Wolk, D-Davis, has remained one of the leading contenders. Recent amendments substantially bulked up the proposal, including additional billions for surface storage that Wolk and others described as a concession to Republicans.
"We have not done anything in major storage since the 60's," said Sen. Jim Nielsen, R-Gerber, who nevertheless did not vote for the bond. "This is the time, and that $3 billion is a fundamental, not-to-be-compromised element."
In a weekend television appearance and in remarks to reporters Monday, Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, placed Gov. Jerry Brown's proposal to build massive water conveyance tunnels under the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta at the center of the water bond debate. Any link to the tunnels would doom a bond in the eyes of voters, Steinberg argued, brandishing polling that backs up his point.
"You can't pass a bond unless it's tunnel-neutral," Steinberg said on the Senate floor.
Already, anti-Delta tunnel advocates are mobilizing to fight any bond offering money for environmental mitigation in the Delta, one piece of the proposed tunnel project.
The key difference, said Steinberg and backers of Wolk's bond, is that SB 848 would give the Delta Conservancy a central role in managing $900 million for Delta restoration. Wolk has the deepest ties to the Delta region of any lawmakers sponsoring bonds, and she argued on Monday that the 11-member Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta Conservancy should have a prominent role.
"In order to create a restoration project anywhere in the state, you need to have a local partner. You can't come flying in from 30,000 feet and use eminent domain," said Wolk. "The Delta conservancy gives the Delta community a voice."
That proposition also appeared to give some skeptics pause.
"I would argue to be careful of the amount of money we put into the Delta," Nielsen said.
PHOTO: A flooded rice field, left, reflects the rising sun alongside the Glenn-Colusa canal in the Sacramento Valley, May 24 2013, near the city of Williams, Calif. By Brian van der Brug/ Los Angeles Times.