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With drought long passed, will voters back pricey water bond?

Roguephotonic/FlickrPost Peak Pass

Post Peak Pass is a granite notch on the remote southern boundary of Yosemite National Park, altitude 10,700 feet.

On Saturday, its north face was partly covered with a 100-yard-long patch of crusted snow – a reminder of just how emphatically California’s three-year drought was broken by the wild winter of 2010-11.

Although California’s high peaks still are capped with last year’s snowpack and its reservoirs are brimming with runoff [PDF], voters will be asked next year to approve an $11.1 billion state water bond measure that was crafted in response to the crippling drought.

But with the drought a fading memory and the state’s finances in disarray, many believe the pricey package of dam-building and water conservation infrastructure has an even slimmer chance of passage today than in 2010, when then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger yanked it off the ballot and slated it instead for November 2012.

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Gov. Jerry Brown has indicated he thinks the water bond as written – its centerpiece is a proposed massive new dam on the San Joaquin River east of Fresno – is too expensive. State Senate leader Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, who helped negotiate the legislative compromise that led to the original measure, agrees it should be scaled back because of state financial issues, said spokeswoman Alicia Trost.

The agreement that undergirds the ballot measure was significant, she said, because it committed the state to tough water conservation policies.

“The other part is financing to meet our water needs,” she said. “They don’t go away because we have good policy behind it.”

Lawmakers have until next summer to decide what to do: In theory, they could revise the bond measure, kill it outright or leave it on the ballot as written.

But revising the measure is no simple task, because any change – even another postponement of the vote – must be approved by a two-thirds vote of the Legislature.

When it comes to revising the water bond, “everything is challenging,” said Bruce Reznik, executive director of the Planning and Conservation League, which objects to the measure’s emphasis on building new dams.

“Nobody thinks it’s got a snowball’s chance of passing” as written, Reznik said. But it's “an uphill battle” to rewrite the measure, he said, because of the two-thirds vote requirement.

Complicating matters further, many of the parties to the original compromise are no longer on the scene, said another critic, Jim Metropulos of the Sierra Club.

“This was decided by a different Legislature and a different governor,” he said.

State Department of Water ResourcesMark Cowin, director of the California Department of Water Resources

The politics are different as well because of the drought. From 2007 to 2009, California's water problems were dire. Lacking irrigation water, growers let fields go fallow. Unemployment rates in some Central Valley farm towns edged above 40 percent. The drought also was blamed for ecological collapse in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, where the Sacramento River’s storied salmon run was on the brink of extinction.

In that crisis atmosphere, Schwarzenegger, Steinberg and other lawmakers crafted their emergency plan, which they said would solve California’s water problems for a generation.

But a wet winter followed, and California’s immediate water problems receded. Meanwhile, environmental groups, taxpayer advocates and some labor unions lined up against the water bond, calling it too expensive, laden with pork and environmentally destructive.

Fearing that the measure would fail, Schwarzenegger induced the Legislature to postpone the vote to 2012.

But since then, the political climate for the water bond may have deteriorated further.

Voters are well aware of the state’s precarious finances; they might be skeptical of the water bond’s price tag.

“All everybody’s been talking about is an $11 billion bond when we’re broke,” said John McManus of the Earthjustice environmental group.

The back-to-back wet winters also may change the dynamic.

“If you are in the middle of a drought, voters are much more sensitive to the issue, even though if you pass the bond. it’s going to be two or three years before you build anything,” said Joseph Caves of the Conservation Strategy Group, political consultants on the bond campaign in 2010.

Wet winters or no, California needs to solve the problem of how to guarantee a water supply to its growing population, advocates say.

“If I had my way, we wouldn’t talk about drought anymore,” said Mark Cowin, director of the state Department of Water Resources. “We live in a state that has variability in water supply. Climate change is only going to accentuate it.”

California needs to continue to “invest in conservation, recycling and water storage projects,” he said – all measures that the water bond sought to fund. Scaling it back isn’t simple.

“It’s very difficult to get an analytic approach of how big (the bond) should be,” he said. “Clearly, the governor is concerned about levels of debt – that’s the real driver for considering reducing the size of the bond.”

Whether to scrap the proposed big dam on the San Joaquin will be “part of the conversation,” he said.

Today, Cowin said the state’s water supply is in good shape. But it's a year-to-year thing.

In the coming winter, “it appears as if we’ll experience moderate La Niña conditions," he said. “Typically, what that means is the Northwest is wetter than usual and the Southwest is drier than usual. And here in Northern California, it can swing either way.”

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