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December 19, 2008

Construction of dams and canal integral to plans for California water system

SACRAMENTO, Calif.

A panel of the governor’s top advisers has backed sweeping changes to California’s water system, including the building of dams and a canal to pipe water around the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

The Delta Vision Committee endorsed a plan that asks California lawmakers to revisit the canal idea that voters rejected long ago. It also promotes building dams, which Democrats oppose, and restoring 100,000 acres of habitat in the delta, where some native fish are struggling to survive.

A final public hearing was held recently in a two-year process to come up with ways to restore the ailing delta while shoring up California’s water supplies.

The committee will present Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger with recommendations by the end of the year.

The panel’s meeting came a day after the Bush administration ordered state and federal officials to drastically reduce the amount of water pumped from the delta in order to save a California native fish from extinction. That decision has left many farmers in the Central Valley and cities in Southern California with the prospect of water shortages next year.

The delta plan envisions a new plumbing system to funnel water from rivers in Northern California to the majority of the state’s population in the arid south and San Francisco Bay area. The idea is to move away from the delta — a fragile maze of levees, islands, river channels and sloughs that are susceptible to rising sea levels, earthquakes and levee breaks.

But transforming the delta and California’s water system will be expensive and potentially a hard sell to legislators currently bickering over how to close a staggering budget gap of US$41.8 billion through mid-2010.

It could cost between US$4.2 billion to US$7.2 billion to build a canal and between US$1.2 billion to US$9.6 billion to fortify channels through the delta, according to estimates provided by the Department of Water Resources. That doesn’t include the US$10 billion bond the governor repeatedly has asked the Democrat-controlled Legislature to adopt for new dams and groundwater storage.

Exactly who would be asked to pay for a new water delivery system and the billions of dollars in ecosystem restoration is unclear. The committee suggested bond funds, and water and environmental fees could be imposed.

It’s one of the many thorny issues the panel said should be vetted next year by the creation of a new interim delta council.

Associated Press

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