Pork in the plan

Lawmakers may have poisoned their ambitious water plan by including $2 billion in unrelated funding

Any comprehensive plan that seeks to solve California’s dizzyingly complex and divisive water crisis and still win passage in the state Legislature is bound to upset a lot of people, and the plan adopted Nov. 4 certainly does that.

Farmers are upset because it calls for measuring and controlling groundwater use, something not done now. Urban water managers are wondering how to achieve its ambitious conservation goals. Delta landowners worry that it will further hurt, not help, their endangered estuary and fragile farmlands.

And North State residents fear that it will lead to the commandeering of even greater quantities of “their” water, damaging fisheries and sucking dry the groundwater aquifers.

The measure also clears the way, at Gov. Schwarzenegger’s insistence, for possible construction of a peripheral canal around the Delta and two new dams and reservoirs, including one in Colusa County—something many environmental groups strongly oppose.

Actually, it’s fairly amazing that the plan even passed, given the number of interest groups and their history of disagreeing over how to divvy up the state’s most precious resource.

The plan’s biggest problem, however, may turn out to be the $11.1 billion bond measure that will be on the November 2010 ballot. That’s twice as much as any other water bond in state history and will add $809 million in annual debt service, bringing the state’s total debt service to 10 percent of its budget at a time when it continues to face a multibillion-dollar structural deficit. And about $2 billion of that $11.1 billion is pork put in for political reasons.

Legislators will argue that such skid-greasing is necessary to pass such a plan, and that the funded projects are valuable in their own right.

In a down economy, however, voters aren’t likely to look kindly on such an expensive measure, especially one designed to pay for a lot of unrelated projects, however valuable they might be (and many are).

The result well may be that voters refuse to fund the package. Then it will be back to the drawing board, with the state’s water crisis as intractable as ever.