State lawmakers say that water and the Bay Delta should be the Legislature's top priorities until it recesses on September 11.

Exactly what measures the Legislature might pass is unclear. Earlier this month, Democratic lawmakers rolled out a five-bill package that they insist provides a framework for moving forward with the co-equal goals of Delta ecosystem restoration and increased water supply reliability. Republican lawmakers, however, said the package leans too heavily toward environmental considerations at the expense of water reliability. Representatives of the Schwarzenegger administration have provided a mixed review.

The five bills in the package:

• AB 39 (Huffman) outlines requirements for a Bay Delta conservation plan to be adopted before 2011.

• AB 49 (Feuer) establishes methods for reducing urban water usage by 20% by 2020, a state goal of the administration.

• SB 12 (Simitian) creates an appointed Delta Stewardship Council that would approve the conservation plan and have other broad authorities.  

• SB 229 (Pavley) establishes new requirements for reporting water diversions from the Delta and water usage.

• SB 485 (Wolk) creates a new Delta Conservancy and modifies the membership on, and the responsibilities of, the Delta Protection Commission.

The Democratic bill authors said their legislation must be considered together as one package. "This is an auspicious moment for California water," Assemblyman Jared Huffman (D-San Rafael), chairman of the Assembly Committee on Water, Parks and Wildlife, said during an August 18 informational hearing in Sacramento. "California can't afford to continue this disarray on the most important water system and ecosystem in the state."

Sen. Lois Wolk (D-Davis) said the package would establish a new governance structure for the Delta by creating a new council and removing authority from many of the approximately 200 agencies that have some say over some a portion of the Delta. But she insisted that the Delta locals should have strong representation on the new council. 

Republican lawmakers expressed little patience with the bill package, largely because of its lack of a general obligation bond to fund water projects. State Sen. Majority Leader Dennis Hollingsworth (R-Murrieta) said the administration's process for addressing the Delta is already far along, and the bill package simply comes at old questions from an environmental perspective.

"I'm wondering what is the genesis of this hearing today. And what is the genesis of these proposals? A number of these have already been defeated by the Legislature or vetoed by the governor," Hollingsworth said. "I have to question the legislative sincerity of this exercise and these proposals. … This is looking backwards."

Assemblywoman Jean Fuller (R-Bakersfield) said the Democratic package appeared incomplete, as it did not provide a source for funding implementation, did not spell out exactly what a new Delta council should do, and did not adequately define the term "water reliability."

Department of Water Resources Director Lester Snow offered a more measured response to the Democratic legislation. "There is no reason not to shape up the package, add a bond to it, and approve it this year," Snow told lawmakers during the August 18 hearing.

The administration, said Snow, supports the idea of a council with broad authority, and of a comprehensive Delta management plan. But, he said, the bills appear to establish new obstacles to increasing reliable water deliveries from the Delta by placing greater emphasis on ecosystem restoration.

Phil Isenberg, a former Democratic assemblyman who now chairs the Delta Vision Task Force appointed by the governor, offered a qualified endorsement of the package.

"These bills are closer than you think, but each one of them needs to be changed," Isenberg told lawmakers.

One key point of contention concerns the makeup of the Delta Stewardship Council. Wolk, whose district includes large portions of the Delta, said that locals should have substantial representation. Yolo County Supervisor Mike McGowan agreed.

"We are not an interest group," McGowan urged. "We are a group of duly elected representatives. … You need us. You need our local knowledge to be successful."

Isenberg, on the other hand, said that the council should be composed solely of governor's appointees, confirmed by the state Senate, who have a statewide perspective. Including a number of local stakeholders will only block progress on important policy for the entire state, he said.

Isenberg also said the package should do more to limit urban development in the Delta's secondary zone, which covers about 250,000 acres on the outer edge of the Delta. Currently, development is largely prohibited in the primary zone but allowed in the secondary zone. The concern is that development is hemming in the Delta.

Of course, the biggest concern regards a peripheral canal or "conveyance facility" that would divert water from the Sacramento River past the Delta and directly into the State Water Project. Most environmental groups remain staunchly opposed to the concept for fear it would ruin the Delta's natural systems. The Planning and Conservation League, for instance, complained that the bills "would create a politically appointed council with authority to approve new ‘Delta conveyance' and would authorize these bureaucrats to assess unlimited fees on water users through most of California to pay for it."

Sen. Joe Simitian (D- Palo Alto) said such positions are not helpful and contended that opposition to the five-bill package equated to support for the status quo, which no one believes is working.

"The time to be for or against this or that, for or against a conveyance, has long passed," said Simitian, who does not oppose a conveyance facility.

Additional hearings on the Delta and water legislation are scheduled for August 25 and 27.