SACRAMENTO, California (AP) — Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger on Tuesday said he will reject any proposal to overhaul state water policy that fails to include funding for new dams.
The governor made his comments Tuesday outside the Capitol as lawmakers were holding a hearing on a package of bills intended to upgrade California's decades-old water-delivery system.
Schwarzenegger and lawmakers from both parties have made water-related issues a top priority now that the state's fiscal mess has been addressed. Yet the legislative package before lawmakers this week was written by Democrats and omits funding to build reservoirs, prompting critical comments Tuesday from GOP lawmakers and the Republican governor.
Schwarzenegger has joined Republican lawmakers and some Democrats who represent districts in the Central Valley in pushing for dams and expanding underground water storage.
"I will not sign anything that does not have above-the-ground and below-the-ground water storage," Schwarzenegger said during a news conference on the steps of the Capitol, surrounded by Central Valley farm workers bused to Sacramento for the day. "We need a whole package to restore our water today and ensure that we have water for tomorrow."
The Central Valley is among the nation's most productive agricultural regions but has seen soaring unemployment over the past year, with jobless rates exceeding 30 percent in some communities. Farmers blame a three-year drought and federal reductions in water pumping that have forced them to fallow thousands of acres of crops and orchards.
State water managers also worry about the long-range effects of global climate change, which is expected to reduce the Sierra snowpack that is crucial to California's summertime water needs.
Democrats say they aren't ruling out money for dams but say the Legislature must first address problems with the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, the ecosystem that serves as the main conduit moving water from north to south.
Water quality and conditions for fish have worsened in the delta in recent years, leading to federal limits on the amount of water that can be pumped from the region to farms and cities.
At the same time, scientists have raised concerns about the stability of some 1,115 miles of earthen levees. If they are breached, the delta could be inundated with salty water from San Francisco Bay, tainting the drinking water supply for two-thirds of California's 38 million residents.
Sen. Fran Pavley, D-Agoura Hills, who co-chaired Tuesday's legislative hearing, said rebuilding California's water system while protecting the environment will be a big challenge.
"The status quo is not acceptable," she said.
Republicans complained during the daylong hearing that Democrats did not include money for dams in their plan, which they said should be a key element of any comprehensive water solution.
"This does not appear to me to be moving forward. This is looking backwards," said Senate Minority Leader Dennis Hollingsworth, R-Temecula.
Democrats also have proposed establishing a seven-member governing council to manage the delta, saying one agency needs to be in charge of decisions for a territory that is the size of Rhode Island.
It would be responsible for restoring habitat while ensuring that water exports continue. It also would have the final say about an evolving proposal to build a canal that would divert fresh water out of the Sacramento River and funnel it around the delta directly to the pumping plants.
Assemblyman Tom Berryhill, R-Modesto, questioned whether the Legislature should relinquish its authority to set major state water policy.
"The one thing we're not going to stand for is another Coastal Commission," he said, referring to a body that has been criticized for protecting California's coastline at the expense of recreation and development.