By TIM HEARDEN
SACRAMENTO -- California's top natural resources official insists the state "is good for" a $250 million pledge to restore the Klamath Basin despite lingering uncertainties about a state bond measure that would provide the money.
State Natural Resources Secretary John Laird said California would seek other means to pay its contribution to the Klamath restoration and dam-removal agreements even if a planned $11.1 billion bond is eventually rejected by voters.
"This isn't required until 2020," Laird said of the plan to remove four dams from the Klamath River. "If for any reason the bond doesn't pass, we will be good for it in another way and we will work on that. We know there's lots of fluidity in the cost estimates and issues that will move forward, but we hope these agreements are implemented.
"We hope to work with stakeholders on how exactly to make good on that commitment in what we hope is the unlikely event the bond doesn't pass," he said.
Laird's comments during a U.S. Senate hearing June 20 in Washington, D.C., come as the project's costs have come under scrutiny in Congress, where an authorization bill has languished since it was introduced in late 2011.
Senate Energy and Natural Resource Committee Chairman Ron Wyden, D-Ore., told representatives from an array of interest groups from the region that straddles the Oregon-California state line the settlements' initial $1.1 billion price tag would be "simply unaffordable" given the budget constraints Congress faces.
Wyden was encouraged when U.S. Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Mike Connor told him the costs of federal actions such as improving habitat for threatened fish had already been reduced to $800 million, and that he believed that $250 million could be shaved off that.
Responding to a question from Wyden about where California stands given its own budget constraints, Laird acknowledged there has been persistent talk about reducing the size of the bond measure to make it more palatable to voters or postponing it again until 2016, when a presidential election will boost turnout.
However, he noted the California's Public Utilities Commission did approve a Klamath project surcharge to basin ratepayers on the California side of the state line, and he said the Golden State's overall fiscal picture is improving.
"One of the challenges the governor (Jerry Brown) undertook when he walked in the door in January 2011 was a $26 billion deficit in the state budget," Laird said. "He is signing a budget this week that is completely in balance with a surplus in future years. It was very hard sledding.
"In short," he said, "California is good for its financial commitment. We are committed."
California Natural Resources Agency: http://resources.ca.gov