With just a few hours to go before a midnight deadline to put a new state water bond on the November ballot, lawmakers Wednesday approved a $7.5 billion package that includes money for California's first new state-funded dams and reservoirs in more than 30 years.
A slew of last minute changes wrought during a marathon negotiating session were key to winning support from Republican and Central Valley lawmakers who had threatened to block the bond unless it increased funding for reservoirs as the state struggles through a third devastating year of drought. The bill needed their support to muster the two-thirds majority needed to pass.
The frantic negotiations to approve a deal were necessary to replace an $11 billion bond proposal already on the ballot that all sides agreed was too costly.
The Assembly endorsed the water bond 77-2 (with former gubernatorial candidate Tim Donnelly casting one of the "no" votes), and the package won unanimous support in the Senate.
Gov. Jerry Brown, who was silent on the water bond for much of this year before jump-starting serious talks on the measure earlier this week, signed the legislation late Wednesday surrounded by a crowd of jubilant lawmakers.
"I am pleased Republicans held our ground to insist on more money for storage," said Assemblywoman Kristin Olsen, R-Modesto, the next Republican leader of the Assembly.
"The Governor and Democrat legislators worked with us and statewide stakeholders this week to develop a bipartisan, viable solution that will protect our state from future drought years and ensure that all Californians have access to our most vital resource," she said.
More than a third of the bond -- $2.7 billion -- is dedicated to construction of dams, reservoirs and other water storage solutions. Projects to protect and restore rivers, lakes and watersheds will get $1.5 billion, or close to 20 percent of the package.
The bond will also allocate $900 million to groundwater cleanup and sustainability, $810 million to drought preparedness, $725 million for water recycling, $520 million to cleanse some small communities' drinking water supply and $395 million for flood management.
Since 1970, California voters have approved 15 of the 16 water bonds they have considered, though most of the money has gone to water conservation and recycling, as opposed to water storage. Determining what portion of this water bond's package would be set aside for storage projects was fiercely debated in Sacramento over the past several days.
Proponents of the funding insisted that anything less than $3 billion would be insufficient to build two projects -- Sites Reservoir and Temperance Flat Dam -- that many expect will win the funding. But in the end, they settled for $2.7 billion.
"If we can get water done in California, we can get just about anything else done, and we will," said Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, who will be termed out at the end of the year. "We all recognized how important this water issue is."
Central Valley lawmakers are not the only ones who won a little extra money for their constituents. Amendments drafted early Wednesday morning also include $15 million more for North and Central Coast water management projects and $50 million more for groundwater cleanup needed in Southern California.
The other hurdle for negotiators has been whether the plan is sufficiently "tunnel neutral" -- does it block bond money from being spent on Brown's controversial plan to build twin tunnels beneath the San Joaquin River Delta to siphon water south.
Sen. Lois Wolk, D-Davis, the main sponsor of the water bond legislation and one of the Delta region's strongest advocates in Sacramento, swears the package sufficiently safeguards against spending bond money on the tunnels, but some environmental groups, including Sierra Club California and the Planning and Conservation League, have not been persuaded.
"We believe there is money in this bond that is vulnerable to being gamed by farmers and water agencies who don't care about protecting the Delta," said Kathryn Phillips, executive director of Sierra Club California. "We're hopeful, but we're worried."