Governor's panel says Calif. must fix water system

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) -- A panel of the governor's top advisers on Tuesday 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.

Tuesday was the final public hearing 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.

At the same time, the state would begin a massive habitat restoration effort, create an investment fund to support farmers and businesses in the delta and fund efforts around the state to develop alternative water supplies, according to the recommendations discussed by the panel.

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 $41.8 billion through mid-2010.

It could cost between $4.2 billion to $7.2 billion to build a canal and between $1.2 billion to $9.6 billion to fortify channels through the delta, according to estimates provided by the Department of Water Resources. That doesn't include the $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.


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