Lawmakers celebrate sweeping water reform package

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Legislators early Wednesday approved a set of historic water conservation and regulatory proposals after an all-night session that lasted until about 6 a.m.

The package of five bills, which includes measures to curb the state’s water usage, revitalize the ailing Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and monitor groundwater levels, among others, now awaits Gov. Schwarzenegger’s signature.

A major component of the plan will require Californians to curb urban water usage 20% by 2020, and another will place an $11-billion water infrastructure improvement bond on the November 2010 ballot for voter approval.

“This is something that’s very badly needed for the sate of California,” Schwarzenegger said at a news conference Wednesday, when he called the package “the most comprehensive in the history of California.”

Schwarzenegger had urged lawmakers into action for the reform effort, calling a special session and threatening to veto hundreds of bills if legislators didn’t progress in addressing the state’s deteriorating water systems and storage mechanisms that have driven California into worsening droughts in recent years.

But talks stalled for weeks as republicans argued democratic leaders were not taking their suggestions seriously.

In the end, the deal earned bipartisan support and was largely a result of Schwarzenegger’s years of pressure for passing reforms, lawmakers said.

Legislative leaders praised the governor for pushing for a set of challenging reforms, which Senate Republican Leader Dennis Hollingsworth (Murrieta) said Californian’s would enjoy for generations to come.

“They will have you to thank for a safe, reliable and clean water supply,” Hollingsworth said.

The unusual show of gratitude toward Schwarzenegger, who has often been the target of criticisms from republicans and democrats, came from members of both parties, with Senate Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) crediting the governor for his leadership alongside Sen. Dave Cogdill (R-Modesto), who had a hand in crafting the final reform plan.

The bills will help address California’s growing urban and agricultural needs, Hollingsworth said in a statement after the passage of the plan.

“With hundreds of thousands of acres fallow and tens of thousands of unemployed farmers and farm workers, this comprehensive water package represents a step toward getting water flowing and helping people get back to work,” Hollingsworth said.

Assembly Speaker Karen Bass (D-Los Angeles) called the bills “the most significant water infrastructure and policy advances since the State Water Project in the 1960s.”

The water infrastructure improvement bond, if approved by voters, will provide $2 billion to restore damaged ecosystems around the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and $500 million to improve the delta’s sustainability.

The delta is a major state resource for agriculture and urban areas and has been drained so heavily that some fish species are threatened and 64 water agencies that rely on it have implemented water rationing restrictions, according to the governor’s office.

Bond funding would also offer $3 billion toward storage projects, which would include improvements to facilitate storage in underground aquifers, and another $2.14 billion, including $488 million specifically for the Los Angeles area to promote advancements in groundwater storage, water recycling and treatment technologies.

That was all good news to Assemblyman Anthony Adams (R-Hesperia), whose district has the largest amount of available underground water storage space in the state, at 1 million cubic acre-feet, he said.

“We are really going to be in a good position in the San Gabriel Valley to be highly competitive acquiring resources,” Adams said.

The reform package’s inclusion of groundwater monitoring measures will be particularly important for California “so we can learn more about groundwater supplies and conditions,” Sen. Carol Liu (D-La Cañada-Flintridge) said in a statement.

California was one of few states that had not begun monitoring its groundwater resources, but the reforms will require the state to improve its efforts to prevent water waste by storing more underground, cleaning groundwater and monitoring its levels, Schwarzenegger said.

The package could create an opportunity to improve water recycling and conservation efforts at the Verdugo Hills Golf Course.

The package allocated $100 million toward water sustainability efforts through the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, which oversees the course’s water management, Assemblyman Paul Krekorian (D-Los Angeles) said in a statement.

“Open space protection is one of our most pressing needs and I was proud to have supported the Legislature’s effort to ensure greater conservation efforts for years to come,” Krekorian said.

Still, for all the celebration and triumphant handshakes Wednesday, the governor acknowledged that the plan would not be securely in place unless voters agree to back the proposal for an $11-billion bond measure.

With the sweeping proposals for change, he was confident that Californians would continue their recent trend of supporting public infrastructure projects like California High Speed Rail, he said.

“This is a very bold vision we have put forward and this vision can only become a reality when this goes on the ballot and the people approve,” he said.

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