Dan Walters: Water bond, tunnels provide new test for Jerry Brown

dwalters@sacbee.comJuly 7, 2013 

When Jerry Brown pushed a major water plan through the Legislature during his first governorship, he violated one of the cardinal – albeit unspoken – rules of Capitol politics.

That maxim is that any major policy change must have virtually unanimous support from all stakeholders or those left out will use California's many political and legal tools to block its implementation.

Brown ignored opposition from San Joaquin Valley farmers and environmental groups in winning legislative approval for a "peripheral canal" to carry Sacramento River water 43 miles around the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to the California Aqueduct near Tracy. And he was penalized for that lapse when opponents teamed up to defeat the plan in a 1982 referendum.

Brown, back in the governorship and hoping to settle some of the issues he left behind 30 years ago, is once again facing a situation that will test his acumen. And once again, it is the gap in the state's water system that he attempted to fill with the peripheral canal.

Brown's predecessor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and the Legislature created a complex mechanism to determine how the gap could be filled, and that process has spawned a twin-tunnel project to carry water under, rather than around, the Delta.

Once again, the major sponsor of the project is Southern California's Metropolitan Water District, now as then seeking more reliability in water supplies.

This time around, San Joaquin Valley farmers, faced with severe cutbacks of water due to judicial decrees to protect the Delta, appear to be aboard. And the environmentalists appear to be divided, some still implacably opposed to diverting water from flowing through the Delta, some persuaded that the tunnels would – or at least could – help the Delta heal.

Due to its political structure, the tunnel project is not subject to referendum as was Brown's earlier plan, although someone could place an initiative on the ballot to block it.

However, court battles loom and the project's political Achilles heel could be a pending bond issue that wouldn't finance the tunnels, but would pay for ancillary water projects to lubricate the tunnels' political viability.

An $11.1 billion bond issue was passed in 2009, but it was festooned with pork to ease its passage, and contains seed money for two new reservoirs that farmers want to stabilize their water supplies but that environmentalists oppose.

Brown and legislators are beginning to write a smaller substitute bond. The Assembly Water, Parks and Wildlife Committee last week released an outline of "principles" for a smaller bond that also indirectly outlines the conflicts.

Brown ardently supports the twin tunnels, but navigating the bond issue's perilous political waters will be a big test for his second governorship.

Call The Bee's Dan Walters, (916) 321-1195. Back columns, www.sacbee.com/walters. Follow him on Twitter @WaltersBee.

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