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Water Bond Deal Draws Rare Unity At Capitol

Rich Pedroncelli / AP
 

Rich Pedroncelli / AP

The saying goes that whiskey is for drinking and water is for fighting over. But a California Legislature that rarely shies away from a fight found itself in near unanimous agreement Wednesday night on a new water bond to replace the $11 billion measure on the November ballot.

It was an issue that held the Capitol in suspense day after day. A deal was in doubt even into Wednesday afternoon and a key election deadline loomed at midnight. But the end was surprisingly anticlimactic.

The entire Assembly water bond debate Wednesday night lasted just 12 seconds. The Senate took a little longer – well, a lot longer, actually (50 minutes). But the legislation passed unanimously in the Senate and with just two “no” votes in the Assembly.

Before the vote, Democratic Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins predicted broad support because of how the agreement was shaped.

“I think there have been times in the previous bond – and as we started discussions on this bond – that it’s all about counting votes and that we leave, maybe there will be segments of the state that we don’t accommodate. We didn’t do that here,” Atkins said. 

The new bond is $7.5 billion. It includes money for groundwater sustainability, safe drinking water and ecosystem restoration. Most importantly to Republicans and Central Valley Democrats, it contains $2.7 billion for a San Joaquin River dam and a Colusa County reservoir. That’s less than the $3 billion they held out for, but Senate Minority Leader Bob Huff said it’s enough to claim victory.

“At the end of the day, we said if it’s $3 billion or $2.5 billion we need to have somebody articulate that we can actually build these projects with this money. And the local water agencies were comfortable with this level, and that gave us the ability to go ahead with it,” Huff said.

The other big sticking point was winning support from lawmakers who represent the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. To do that, the bill attempts to address fears that parts of the bond could boost Governor Brown’s proposal to build twin tunnels underneath the Delta that would pump water to Central and Southern California.

Democratic Senator Lois Wolk declared the deal helps everyone and hurts no one. “I am very comfortable with the fact that this bond is tunnel neutral and does not facilitate the construction, the mitigation or the funding for the tunnels,” she said.

Some environment and Delta groups strongly disagree, though – and say they’ll work to defeat it in November. The Sierra Club says the bond would needlessly encourage dams at the expense of the environment.

After the bill passed, the governor and lawmakers took a victory lap through the Capitol. Brown met privately with Senators and Assembly members; then, everyone gathered in his office for a signing ceremony.

Dozens of lawmakers jostled for prime positions near the governor, who promised to campaign for the measure in the fall election.

“We’ve got a real water bond and we got Democrats and Republicans that are more unified than I’ve ever seen probably in my life!” Brown said. 

And with that, Brown signed the bill, which – thanks to a little legislative politics – will be Proposition 1 on the November ballot.

 drought