February 1, 2012 - From the February, 2012 issue

Darrell Steinberg: Time to Focus Intensely on State Water Bond

California State Senate President pro tempore Darrell Steinberg was featured as the keynote speaker at the January Future of Water in Southern California conference in Los Angeles. TPR presents the following edited transcript of Senator Steinberg’s remarks highlighting the need for lawmakers to unite behind a coherent state water investment plan. In budget stressed economic times, passing a multi-billion dollar water bond will be challenging. The need to create jobs and reinvest in California drives Senator Steinberg forward, despite only having imperfect policy solutions to work with.


Darrell Steinberg

“We need a governance structure for the delta if we’re ever going to achieve the ‘coequal goals’ of restoring the delta while also ensuring water supply reliability for the entire state.”

Darrell Steinberg (CA Senate President Pro Tempore): I have come to understand and recognize not only how crucial water is to the people of California in a most general sense, but how significant it is to the future of our economy and how significant it is to the things we take for granted in our everyday life. 

We all know we live a good life here in California, and it is easy to take for granted what it takes for that to continue. I recognize that for decades this water issue has been unsolvable in this state, not so much on a partisan basis (although that plays a part in it), but on a regional basis. It’s a north-south conflict. It’s an east-west conflict. It’s a conflict between those that believe we’re better off investing in above ground storage and those that believe were better off investing in conservation, water recycling, and better use of our ground water resources. Of course in politics, the political truth is usually in the middle. 

In 2009 we faced this $42 billion deficit. We made cuts that I could never imagine making in my career in public service. I said to my staff, “I’m so tired of working on the negative, I’m so tired of people saying the legislature cannot solve big problems, and I want to prove it wrong”. 

So even after the latest budget decisions we had to make, I said, “Lets take on water.” There had been a great foundation laid by prior legislators, by a lot of good people in the water world, and by some good blue ribbon task forces. That said, we’ve got to have a comprehensive approach. We need a governance structure for the delta if we’re ever going to achieve the ‘coequal goals’ of restoring the delta while also ensuring water supply reliability for the entire state. Yes, we may need to focus on above ground storage, but more money needs to go into efficiency, conservation, and ground water reuse. 

For a number of months we waited, and the end result was the October 2009 water package. It included some major changes to the law that required 20% local-regional water conservation goals in every region of the state. It established stringent enforcement against illegal appropriation of water. It established new requirements for ground water monitoring – very significant because prior to the passage of this legislation the political wisdom was not to trespass on people’s land, saying, “we’re going onto your property to see what groundwater resources you’re holding.” Maybe most significantly we established a governance structure for the delta: the Delta Stewardship Council, which is charged with developing a restoration plan for the delta and ultimately having a check on how an alternative conveyance system can and must coexist with the environmental restoration of the delta. 

Of course, you can’t do any good policy unless you provide the financing to invest in conservation, groundwater monitoring, and the other things called for in the laws. So we were able, in the most imperfect way, to stitch together a two thirds super majority to put on the 2010 ballot an $11 billion water bond. That invested millions of dollars in wastewater recycling, ground water remediation, and conservation. It also provides up to $3 billion of general fund resources for above ground storage, specifically focused on two potential dams. I had to say to the environmental community, “this is a classic give-to-get.” If I were a legislator on my own, I could tell you that I don’t think we should be spending general fund dollars on above ground storage. I don’t think that’s the best use of our resources. Yet it takes a two thirds vote to put such a measure on the ballot, and in order to get the billions for what we wanted, we had to cross the aisle with the Republicans and put together a bond that contains more than what the people of California are probably willing to swallow at this point. 

That leads me to the heart of my talk here today. There are two truisms—you can call them clichés if you like—that ring true in terms of where we currently stand on water. On any big issue you can get to a point in a controversy where you achieve a breakthrough, and then no matter how difficult the challenges are going forward, you can never turn back. I think 2009 in our agreement represents that breakthrough. We cannot turn back,and we won’t turn back. There has been too much time, money, and effort invested into establishing the framework that I described a moment ago in addition to the BDCP, which is separate but very much related to the rest of these subjects. 

The second truism is that a solution to complicated challenges can neither be top-down, nor can the State abdicate an active role and the responsibility to help achieve progress for the entire state. I look at Los Angeles and the very good work that Southern California has done, well prior to 2009, in focusing on the water crisis. How do you explain, other than in a very positive way, that over the past twenty five years Los Angeles has grown by over one million people and water usage has declined? The basin and all basins across the state continue to grow, and if we are going to ensure California’s water future, then we are going to have to find a way to partner, to invest the resources, through bonding the question and getting it to the voters. At the same time, you’re going to have do what you have done and are talking about here at this conference, what you’re going to continue to do to advance technologically, to continue to be the innovators in reducing water use on the commercial, residential, and industrial sides of our economy. 

So where do we stand here today? The stewardship council is up and running. They are in the midst of developing what they are statutorily charged to develop: a plan for the delta that assures the people living in and around the delta and that assures the environmental community that the fragile ecosystem of the delta and its fragile levies are not going to be sacrificed while we go forward with some form of alternative conveyance that will ensure water supply reliability. Phil Isenberg is very dogged and committed, as is that entire council, and I’m confident that despite all the headaches they have, they will get the plan done in 2012. 

The Schwarzenegger administration pushed very hard for a resolution of the Bay-Delta conservation plan before he left, and, of course, that didn’t happen. Now Governor Brown has said this will be fast tracked. I believe he has the right people and the right commitment to move that forward and present an array of choices around what alternative conveyance could look like, have it match up with the delta plan and the coequal goals, and that we will be in position over the next one to two years to really define a direction for delta restoration and water supply reliability. That leaves the bond and the question that everybody asks all the time: “what’s going to happen with the bond?” I don’t know.

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I want to speak to you about the challenges and the difficulty that is in the challenge of any political endeavor to balance your values, your point of view, and the reality of moving something forward. The water package I think was a once in 40 year achievement, and I’m proud of it. We were able to create coalitions and consensus. Sometimes you get into things, and if you really stop and think about it, then you step back. But if you don’t pause, you go forward. It was rather odd in retrospect that in Northern California, this notion of conveyance and spending any money to do benefit Southern California was not all that popular. Yet, here are the facts: California’s growing, there’s less water, and we have to deal with it. We have to be willing to fight for our regions and stretch enough so that the entire state is taken care of. I say to constituents in Northern California, “if the delta breaks, if the delta becomes truly dysfunctional, and if the water supply for Southern California and some of Northern California are interrupted, that’s going to harm the entire state economy. That’s going to affect Northern California as much as Southern California.” It was very interesting to take on the conventional wisdom of my own city—a city which had to be dragged to accept the notion of residential water meters. But I’m still here. I survived. 

Back to the bond. There are a couple issues with the bond. One, there is a pretty universal agreement that the bond is too large. It’s $11 billion, and some say it’s got too much pork. I can accept that, but one person’s pork is another person’s regional water solution. You call it whatever you want to call it if you’re a critic or a supporter, but I think there is a general consensus that the bond itself is too big. We’re not going to be able to sell an $11 billion bond to the voters during a precarious  period of economic recovery. Secondly, the governor and the legislature have made a priority of passing the governor’s seven billion dollar tax measure in November. If we don’t pass that we’re not going to turn that deficit corner in schools, in higher education, and in the precious safety net for those in need.

  We have to shrink the bond, and then we have to decide whether or not it is politically appropriate to pass the bond without any detriment to the governor’s tax measure, to have the bond appear on the ballot in November 2012. We don’t have to make that decision right now, but we probably do in a couple of months. My preference would be to go into 2012. How can you be for deficit reduction when at the same time you want to impose more debt on the people by passing a water bond or appropriating billions of dollars for high speed rail? We all know the answer. We have a mutual obligation to balance the budget, to live within our means, and at the same time to grow the economy. In fact, if we don’t use the tools at our disposal, which in this state is investing in public infrastructure through bond measures, we have very few other tools to stimulate the economy, to create high wage jobs, to put people back to work, and to bring more revenue in. Somehow we have to balance all these priorities and hope for a little bit of a break when it comes to economic growth. 

I assume most folks in this room would ask, “why are you spending three and a half billion dollars in that bond for surface storage when the water users ought to pay?” That’s a very fair position. It will take the same Herculean effort to reach two thirds in 2009 to modify the bond. Let’s take a couple months and bring the same stakeholders and legislators together and try. If we could come to a beneficiary pay option and then leave a small general obligation bond for the stuff we might all agree the public should pay for, I’m all for it and we ought to give it a shot. But, I have no illusions that the two thirds will stay together or a different two thirds could be put together because a surface storage piece for the Republicans has been their mantra for their decades of fight in the water world. 

How can you modify the bond in a more politically saleable way, bring it under ten or eight billion dollars, and go whether it’s 12 or 14 and pass it? It’s not perfect, but one way you do it politically is you give an equal hair cut to each chapter of the bond. Surface storage will get the same reduction as conservation or ground water monitoring. If I were the king of California that would not be my preferred solution, but the choice maybe whether we want it our way and risk getting nothing, or do we do the best we can with a smaller bond and compromise so that we are moving forward billions of dollars of water investment in California? 

So the glass is three quarters full. We made great progress. We’ve got the foundation, we got the BDCP, we got the water policy, which is not going away, no matter what. We just have to figure out the bond and how it relates to the BDCP because all the money for delta restoration is essential in the bond for the BDCP to work. We’re on the verge on another major breakthrough if we just stick with it, we’re willing to make some compromises and we’re willing to keep our eye on the big picture. 

Your attention to the details of this issue, to ensuring that the question of the bond in state water policy is not the only question being asked in terms of how to make a better future for California, and for water in particular, is vital. We need to be your partners, we intend to be your partners, and we look forward to great things in California. 

Here is my vow for the next three years: I want to spend more of my time and energy actually building progress, advances, gains in California across an array of issues, from water to education to transportation, than I do just standing there working to make sure things aren’t worse. We have to continue to actively mend California. 

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