Rapid pace of deal-making triggers suspicion on all sides

By WES SANDER

Capital Press

SACRAMENTO -- Agricultural water watchers say lawmakers' frenetic style of crafting legislation is making it difficult to know where things stand on a deal to solve California's water woes.

Legislative leaders are still trying to reach agreement on a suite of legislation that would rework management of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and upgrade the state's water-delivery system.

After years mulling it over, legislators are now trying to push through a historic deal on high-pressure deadlines. Meanwhile, agricultural stakeholders are trying to keep a close eye on the size of the deal's financing bond and how the legislation handles area-of-origin water rights.

If the process would allow for longer deliberation, things wouldn't be so confusing, said Donn Zea, president of the Northern California Water Association.

"It's sort of part and parcel to what has been happening the last 60 days," Zea said. "It creates distrust. No matter what side you're on, I think we all have this common concern, that there needs to be a process that can be trusted."

Alicia Trost, spokeswoman for Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, said leaders want the new water laws finalized by the legislature in two weeks.

"It all depends on when we can come to an agreement between the governor and the legislative leaders," Trost said.

For several days, the "big five" -- Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Assembly and Senate party leaders -- have been haggling in private meetings.

If they can reach a deal, the resulting legislation will see at least one joint hearing of the Senate and Assembly water committees. Those committees had scheduled a hearing for Wed., Oct. 21, but cancelled it the previous day, with staffers saying it would be rescheduled for Monday, Oct. 26.

Talk has lately pegged the bond measure at a size of $9.5 billion, down from the roughly $12 billion it was when the legislature's regular session ended in September.

That reduction is whittling down assistance for local water infrastructure, said Danny Merkley, water-resources director with the California Farm Bureau Federation. That's unfortunate because local projects can improve water efficiency in the short term, Merkley said.

"The success of a bond measure is going to be dependent on the size of that bond and its ability to keep everyone at the table," he said.

Staff writer Wes Sander is based in Sacramento. E-mail: wsander@capitalpress.com.

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