Alarmed that a proposed canal to funnel water around the delta to Southern California is gaining momentum, a Northern California lawmaker wants to ensure the Legislature has the final say.
A bill by Assemblywoman Alyson Huber, D-Lodi, would prohibit the construction of a canal, tunnel or any other project that would send delta water south to cities and farms unless state lawmakers authorize it.
It also would ban a canal that diminishes the supply, rights or quality of water currently used by residents of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, the heart of California's water-delivery system.
"I don't think we should have an infrastructure project of this size without legislative oversight," said Huber, who represents a district in the delta and opposes the canal. "I think the Legislature should do its job and give it an up-or-down vote."
A region the size of about Rhode Island, the Northern California delta is a maze of rivers, islands and sloughs where mountain runoff collects before spilling into San Francisco Bay. The water that passes through the fragile ecosystem supplies drinking water to some 25 million Californians and irrigation water to thousands of acres.
Those water deliveries have been curtailed in recent years because of drought and pumping restrictions intended to protect threatened fish that live in or migrate through the delta.
A state-federal working group that is crafting a new habitat plan for the delta has said a canal could ensure future water deliveries to Southern California while protecting the estuary's ecosystem. It also is studying an underground tunnel as an alternative to a canal. The underground pipeline would divert the same amount of water out of the delta but potentially help the state avoid costly legal challenges as it seeks to acquire land for a canal.
Building a canal around the delta has been discussed for decades but is an issue fraught with political peril, leading most politicians to avoid it. In 1982, California voters overturned plans by the Legislature to build a canal.
The debate has rekindled in recent years as water deliveries have been significantly reduced and thousands of farming acres have withered for lack of water.
The Legislature adopted a series of water bills last year and placed an $11.1 billion water bond on this November's ballot. Even so, lawmakers did not specifically call for building a canal, despite a growing consensus that it will be an essential element to overhauling the state's antiquated water system.
The bond that will go before voters in November sets aside money to pay for new dams, groundwater cleanup, conservation and habitat restoration.
In an effort to appease delta lawmakers, the bond expressly prohibited any money from being spent on the design or construction of a canal. Instead, Southern California water contractors and Central Valley farmers have offered to pay for it.
Estimates for building a canal around the delta range as high as $9 billion, while an underground pipeline could cost as much as $11.7 billion, according to the Department of Water Resources.
At the same time, lawmakers imposed tough requirements should a canal ever be built, mandating that minimum river flows be set for the delta, in part to prevent it from becoming too salty with water from San Francisco Bay.
They created the Delta Stewardship Council to decide whether a canal should be built and draft a comprehensive plan to manage the delta. A canal also would have to be approved by state and federal wildlife and water agencies.
Huber's bill is scheduled for a hearing Tuesday in the Assembly Water, Parks and Wildlife Committee, where she expects a spirited debate.
"It's going to be a fight, but I think it will be very difficult for committee members to justify why the Legislature shouldn't have oversight," Huber said.
Here are some other bills lawmakers are scheduled to consider this week:
- Students who are absent more than 10 percent of the school year without a valid excuse would be labeled "chronic truants" under a measure scheduled to be heard Monday by the Senate Appropriations Committee. The bill, by Sen. Elaine Alquist, D-Santa Clara, would define chronic truancy in the state Education Code. It also would require that attendance information for chronic truants be part of their permanent school record, to allow the state to better track absenteeism.
- Voters in certain parts of the state could head to the polls up to five days before a general election, under a bill scheduled to be heard Monday by the Senate Appropriations Committee. The measure would create four pre-election day polling places -- at two University of California campuses and two California State University campuses. Any voter living in the counties where the polling places are located could cast an advance ballot there. The five-year pilot program would take effect in 2011. The bill's author, Sen. Ellen Corbett, D-San Leandro, says it would increase voter participation, particularly among students.
- Renters in apartment buildings that have been sold in foreclosure proceedings often have been caught by surprise and required to move out of their homes quickly. A bill introduced by Assemblyman Mike Feuer, D-Los Angeles, would help dwellers in rent-controlled buildings whose landlords have defaulted on their mortgages. It would enable a public entity to postpone the property's sale by 60 days. The bill will be heard in the Assembly Judiciary Committee on Tuesday.
- Illegal immigrants from Mexico would have an easier time applying for graduate school in California under a bill introduced by Assemblyman Juan Arambula, I-Fresno. Applicants to graduate school programs are generally required to take standardized tests as a part of the admissions process and must provide valid identification to do so. Arambula's bill would enable test sponsors to accept identification papers issued by Mexico as a valid form of I.D. The proposal will be heard in the Assembly Judiciary Committee on Tuesday.