By WES SANDER

Capital Press

Farm interests and politicians are reluctantly supporting an effort to remove California's water-infrastructure bond from the November ballot, saying it's the wrong time to ask the public to take on $11.1 billion of new debt.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said June 29 that the initiative should be pushed back to 2012. He cited concerns over the state budget, which lawmakers have yet to agree on as the state enters a new fiscal year with a $19 billion deficit.

The California Farm Bureau Federation called the development "disappointing but understandable."

CFBF said it would use the time until the bond is again introduced to communicate to voters agriculture's stake. President Paul Wenger pointed out "a need to take more time to inform voters about the benefits of the bond measure."

"It's the right package, but this November may be the wrong time," Wenger said.

Schwarzenegger has made the bond, and the package of landmark water legislation it accompanied last year, a signature issue.

The measure accompanies a landmark package of bills approved last year. The bills aim to improve water management while restoring the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

Titled the Safe, Clean and Reliable Drinking Water Supply Act of 2010, the measure puts $3 billion toward new storage. That is considered a key achievement for California's Democratic-controlled Legislature, which has long resisted building dams.

Sarah Woolf, spokeswoman for the agricultural Westlands Water District on the San Joaquin Valley's dry west side, said the extra time can only improve the measure's apparently low chances -- polls show less than a majority of voters in support.

That's if the economy improves and the divergent interests that crafted the bond can win over the public, Woolf said.

"I think voters have been facing a lot of crises, and the deficit has been disconcerting," Woolf said.

Westlands was a player in the political process that crafted the water package last year.

Woolf said that in the next two years, urban residents in areas that take Delta deliveries may be further convinced of the need for water-supply investment as their rates rise, the result of water agencies having to compensate for unpredictable supplies.

That would help the effort to shore up public support, an area in which the agricultural industry is often said to be weak.

"There is no way that agriculture can get this passed on their own," Woolf said.

Efforts to amend the bond are meanwhile brewing, including legislation to exclude private entities from investing in bond-funded surface storage.

Republican Assemblyman Bill Berryhill of Ceres criticized the bill -- AB 2775 by Assemblyman Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael -- for increasing the obstacles to creating storage.

"This bill is just a half-baked attempt to fix a fatally flawed water bond," Berryhill said in a statement.

Berryhill has blasted the bond's language, saying it fails to guarantee future storage projects.

Assembly woman Anna Caballero, D-Salinas, likewise supporting delaying the bond. Caballero, a principal contributor in crafting the bond, called the development "disappointing," although necessary.

"The need is now," Caballero said. "But these are tough economic times and delay is necessary to preserve the progress we have made."

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