Alternative sought as leaders fear voters' rejection

By WES SANDER

Capital Press

SACRAMENTO -- An acreage-based fee on farmland would ensure the cost of water-infrastructure upgrades is distributed evenly, officials with the Legislative Analyst's Office told lawmakers at a Senate hearing.

Democrats are seeking ways to pay for upkeep and improvements to the state's water-delivery system without selling bonds.

Water and Natural Resources committee chairwoman Fran Pavley, D-Santa Monica, said the March 30 hearing would be the first of many examinations of the topic.

"This is the opening discussion on a very important issue," Pavley said.

The committee asked LAO to find alternatives to public debt for funding water infrastructure. The topic needs greater exploration than was allowed when lawmakers drafted landmark water legislation in 2009, Pavley said.

That legislation included an $11 billion bond that was slated to go before voters last November, but lawmakers postponed it to 2012. The bond is expected to pay for new water storage and restoration of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, among other improvements. But vocal resistance from an electorate worried about the economy convinced backers it might fail at the polls.

Efforts to develop and improve the state's water-delivery system have long rested on general taxpayer dollars, mostly from the general fund and from general-obligation bonds, the LAO stated in its report.

The state could adopt a revenue source similar to the public-goods charge levied on energy ratepayers, the report said. But assessing a fee based on water usage would be difficult in agriculture because many farmers rely heavily on well water. California doesn't regulate or monitor ground water, unlike most states.

An assessment based on the total acreage of farmland in a district could accurately account for the amount of ground water used overall, LAO stated.

Such an assessment would account for "the vast majority" of agricultural water used in the state, where data are elusive because of high reliance on unmeasured ground water, the LAO stated.

If implemented, it should be charged directly to water agencies, LAO stated. The agencies, which contract with state or federal agencies to deliver public water to users, are best able to compile the data necessary for distributing fees.

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