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With a deadline looming to strike a deal on a state water bond, Gov. Jerry Brown and legislative leaders on Monday floated a roughly $7 billion proposal they insist will help California weather future droughts.

The package -- including provisions to boost water storage and clean up tainted groundwater -- would replace a bloated $11 billion bond already on the November ballot but which many state leaders fear voters will reject.

"In public policy, as in life, everyone wants what they want, but in the end you strike a compromise," Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg told reporters on Monday. "This is an excellent framework for a bond."

The new $6.995 billion bond, drafted around midnight Sunday, would put more than a third of the money into dams, reservoirs and other storage projects -- a provision essential to winning Republican support for the pared-down measure.

But it's not yet clear if it has enough support to clear the Legislature by a mid-week deadline. The package has already drawn sharp criticism from environmental activists who fear Brown will use some of the money to finance his controversial plan to siphon off water from the fragile Sacramento Delta through tunnels built below it.

"This plan has been touted as 'tunnel neutral,' but the loopholes are large enough to drive several tunnel boring machines through," said Jonas Minton, water policy director for the Planning and Conservation League.


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Although the bond proposal includes language forbidding any money from being spent on building tunnels that could pipe water from the San Joaquin River to Central Valley farmers and Los Angeles-area water users, it doesn't block funds from being spent in other ways that could benefit the project, Minton said.

"Billions of dollars in public funds are at stake and legislators aren't even being given sufficient time to do their due diligence and ensure that the public will actually receive the benefits that are being touted," Minton said.

Shasta Dam,  2003
Shasta Dam, 2003 (Associated Press)

The plan allocates $2.5 billion for water storage projects, $1.47 billion for ecosystem and watershed restoration projects and $850 million for clean-up of groundwater that's used for drinking.

When the new water bond proposal is unveiled, it will be known as Senate Bill 866 -- a gutted and amended version of a bill to tax fireworks.

On Monday, lawmakers approved an emergency measure that will buy them a little more time to complete the deal.

California law requires the Secretary of State to distribute voter information guides to the public 40 days before a general election. If printing had started late Monday evening as scheduled, the booklets would have included details of the $11.14 billion water bond lawmakers approved five years ago that Democrats desperately want to replace.

So instead, on Monday, the Legislature approved, and Brown signed, Assembly Bill 1945, which allows the state to distribute the guides two days later than the legally required date, and Senate Bill 867, which renumbers the ballot measures to put the water bond at the top of the list voters will consider in November. Measures at the top of the ballot are thought to have a better chance to pass.

Brown has also agreed to dedicate an additional $200 million from bonds voters already approved to the projects the new water bond will finance, bringing the total amount the state will spend to $7.195 billion.

Republican legislative leaders have not formally endorsed the new $6.995 billion water bond proposal, but Senate Republican Leader Bob Huff, R-Diamond Bar, said on Monday he thought members of both parties were "close" to reaching a deal they could all support. Despite being in the minority, Republicans have a rare opportunity to push their priorities with the water bond because it requires two-thirds support in the Legislature.

Assembly Republican Leader Connie Conway, R-Tulare, on Monday lamented that the plan fell short of the $3 billion worth of water storage the GOP has sought, but she said she hoped a compromise measure would replace the bond now scheduled for the November ballot.

Environmental activists also took issue with the storage funding plan, arguing that it favors surface over groundwater storage and excludes North Coast and Central Coast communities, including Santa Cruz, from having a chance to win a portion of the money.

If voters approve the new bond measure, it would give funding preference to projects with recreational value. Because reservoirs can be used for boating and water sports, they will always score higher than groundwater projects, said Kathryn Phillips, executive director of Sierra Club California.

"This plan doesn't level the playing field," Phillips said. "It's designed for a select few Central Valley projects -- Sites Reservoir, Shasta Dam, Temperance Flat Dam -- and doesn't provide the public benefit that justifies public money being spent on them."

Contact Jessica Calefati at 916-441-2101. Follow her at Twitter.com/calefati. Read the Political Blotter at IBAbuzz.com/politics.