SACRAMENTO -- As California's drought drags on, more farmers are being forced to fallow fields and a growing number of small towns run out of water. So Republicans and Democrats here finally agree on something: They need to spend billions of dollars to fix California's broken water system.

But that doesn't mean getting a water bond on November's ballot that voters will approve is a sure thing.

Gov. Jerry Brown hasn't even decided whether he supports the idea, while the Legislature has come up with seven different schemes aimed at making the next drought a lot less painful.

Republicans want to build new dams and reservoirs, Democrats want to fund conservation and recycling projects. And the Bay Area, Southern California and the Central Valley all have competing interests.

Still, longtime Capitol observers see some hope for a grand compromise.

”It would be a political missed opportunity if we don't see a water bond on the ballot this fall,” said Jack Pitney, a political-science professor at Claremont McKenna College. “As Rahm Emanuel says, 'Never let a crisis go to waste.'”

Since 1970, California voters have approved 15 of the 16 water bonds they've considered, though most of the money has gone to water conservation and recycling, as opposed to water storage. The last time a water bond passed was 2006, when voters approved Proposition 84, authorizing $5.4 billion in spending on water projects.


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If lawmakers do nothing, an $11.14 billion water bond previously scheduled for the ballot will go before voters and fail, a Public Policy Institute of California poll in November showed. That proposal was crafted with bipartisan support, but it's bloated with funding for projects, such as parks, that have little to do with water. It has already been pulled from the ballot twice because lawmakers thought it wouldn't pass.

That's why Sen. Lois Wolk, D-Davis, has proposed a much leaner $6.8 billion water bond. So far, hers is the only plan that has won approval from multiple legislative committees.

Wolk's blueprint includes $2.9 billion for watershed and ecosystem improvements, $2 billion for regional water-infrastructure projects, $1 billion for groundwater and surface storage upgrades and $900 million to expand access to safe drinking water, especially in disadvantaged communities.

But everyone seems to want more, she said.

When the Senate Committee on Natural Resources considered the bill, Wolk kept track of each request made for more money. Together, the pleas for other spending topped $6 billion -- which would almost double the size of her proposed package.

”Water bonds never pass with great numbers, so we have to be realistic about what the voter is willing to do,” Wolk said. “It would be a real mistake not to focus on the areas of common agreement and get this done.”

Lawmakers have until June 26 to pull the water bond scheduled for the ballot or replace it with one of the other six proposals.

Pleasanton resident Mario Zamora, a conservative-leaning independent voter, agrees. He said it would be “ridiculous” if Sacramento politicians deny voters the chance to consider a water bond this fall.

”If we don't start conserving and recycling, water is going to become the new oil, and only the rich will be able to afford it and have a good life,” said Zamora, 48, an electromechanical engineer.

Wolk's proposal has won praise from environmental groups like the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Sierra Club. But it has drawn fierce opposition from the California Farm Bureau Federation and the California Farm Water Coalition, trade groups that represent Central Valley growers and ranchers.

They want to see three times as much money for water storage projects than what's offered in Wolk's legislation because the dams and reservoirs needed to capture more water in future wet years will only become more expensive to build, said Danny Merkley, the bureau's director of water resources.

”That's very firm,” he said when asked if the bureau was willing to compromise.

Gov. Brown declined to answer questions about whether he supports putting a water bond on the ballot or how he believes a winning proposal should be crafted.

Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, said he knows Wolk's bill doesn't have enough support to clear the two-thirds threshold needed to put a new water bond on the November ballot. But he called it “a good base and a good starting point.” He's formed a small, bipartisan working group he hopes will hammer out a winning compromise.

”Yes, we can pull together here and find these intersections and get this vote,” said Steinberg, who will be forced to leave the Legislature in the fall because of term limits. “We have to.”

Others, like Jonas Minton, a water policy adviser to the Planning and Conservation League, are more skeptical. While he hopes that “adult supervision” can be applied by lawmakers, he's not sure that requests made by special interests can be managed.

”Politicians like doling out public funds,” Minton said, “and it's going to be hard for them to rein in some of these demands.”

At a glance: Seven water bond proposals

* SBX 72, by former Sen. Dave Cogdill, R-Modesto: This is the water bond proposal set to go on the ballot unless it's replaced. Cost: $11.14 billion. Includes funding for storage, river ecosystem restoration and water conservation, plus $100 million for Lake Tahoe bike trails, $20 million for economic development in Siskiyou County and other projects that have little to do with water.

* AB 2686 by Assemblyman Henry Perea, D-Fresno: Cost: $9.25 billion. Would spend $3 billion for storage, $2.25 billion on Delta sustainability, $1.5 billion on regional water projects, $1.5 billion on watershed protection and $1 billion on safe drinking water.

* SB 927 by Sens. Anthony Canella, R-Ceres, and Andy Vidak, R-Hanford: Cost: $9.2 billion. Would spend $3 billion for storage, $2.5 billion on Delta restoration, $1 billion for safe drinking water and $400 million for disadvantaged communities running out of water.

* SB 848 by Sen. Lois Wolk, D-Davis: Cost: $6.82 billion. Would spend $2.9 billion on watershed improvements, $2 billion on regional water projects, $1 billion for groundwater and surface storage upgrades and $900 million on safe drinking water.

* AB 1331 by Assemblyman Anthony Rendon, D-Lakewood: Cost: $6.5 billion. Money would be spent evenly on projects for clean drinking water, watershed protection, regional water security, Delta sustainability and water storage.

* AB 1445 by Assemblyman Dan Logue, R-Loma Rica: Cost: $5.8 billion. Would fund construction of surface storage projects.

* SB 1370 by Sen. Cathleen Galgiani, D-Stockton: Cost: $5.1 billion. Would fund construction of surface storage projects, including Sites and Temperance Flat reservoirs.