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Water agencies could lose CALFED funds

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Posted: Monday, May 2, 2005 10:00 pm

A state legislative committee will begin hearings next week to determine how much to trim from the budget of a multi-agency Delta water program that has been the target of increasing criticism this year.

The Legislature isn't likely to completely strip state funding for the California Federal Bay-Delta Program, commonly known as CALFED, but state lawmakers could pare down funding considerably for the 2005-06 fiscal year, said Bethany Westfall, a water consultant for State Sen. Mike Machado, D-Linden.

The Bay-Delta water program has received nearly $3 billion in federal, state and local funds over a four-year period beginning in 2000, including about $402 million of state Proposition 50 water funds in the past two years, according to a CALFED report.

But Machado and other legislators have been highly critical lately about CALFED, saying the program wants too much money and does not have a detailed plan on how to spend what money it will get, Westfall said.

The Senate budget subcommittee focusing on water issues, chaired by Sen. Sheila Kuehl, D-Santa Monica, is scheduled to discuss reducing the CALFED budget to "the fundamentals" and limiting state money to critical programs, Westfall said. The subcommittee, meeting next Monday, will define just what "the fundamentals" are and what constitutes a "critical" water program, Westfall added.

Machado does not sit on the budget water subcommittee.

A Senate committee actually "zeroed out" or completely cut CALFED's budget last week, said CALFED spokesman Keith Coolidge. However, the Legislature may restore some of the money it removed, he said.

"We are four years into what was envisioned as a 30-year project," Coolidge said. "It was never envisioned that all the problems would be solved in four years."

Coolidge said CALFED officials look at Machado's and Kuehl's criticisms of the agency as constructive and will work with them to address their concerns.

Ed Steffani, manager of the North San Joaquin Water Conservation District, agrees with Machado's criticisms about CALFED's operations.

"They've spent tons of money with very little to show," Steffani said. "It's one of the latest examples of failed consensus building."

With 25 state and federal agencies and hundreds of water districts and cities, CALFED is trying to balance competing water interests, Coolidge said.

Steffani said trying to reach consensus among varying water interests is a waste of time and money.

"I'm from the old school -- confront the enemy, and if you can't reach agreement, go to war," Steffani said.

Westfall said that Machado doesn't want to gut the CALFED program, just make it fiscally responsible with a solid spending plan.

"Mike is adamant that he doesn't want to get rid of CALFED," Westfall said. "CALFED is very important, especially to the Delta."

However, local agencies could lose the chance to gain CALFED funding for local projects similar to ones the agency has already funded.

The Woodbridge Irrigation District has benefited from CALFED through a $1.6 million grant for engineering, design and studies for environmental permits leading to the construction of the new Woodbridge Dam that is currently under construction.

The North San Joaquin district was awarded $500,000 from CALFED in 2000 for a demonstration groundwater recharge project, but Steffani says he has yet to see a penny of it.

"I'm still screwing around trying to get approval (from regulatory agencies)," he said.

Steffani said that a reduction of CALFED funding won't affect local residents and their water supply. He expects to get the $500,000 CALFED grant in the near future, but the bureaucratic red tape has discouraged him from applying for more CALFED money anyway.

"At the (slow) rate that CALFED was moving, I don't think it will make any difference," Steffani said.

Bill Jennings, who operates Delta Keeper, a nonprofit organization that monitors Delta water quality, criticized CALFED for exporting Delta water to Southern California and the southern San Joaquin Valley at the expense of fish and their habitat.

"When CALFED was established, everyone was to get healthy together," Jennings said. "It's little more than a hand-maiden to the Metropolitan Water District."

The Metropolitan Water District serves the Los Angeles area.

Jennings said that CALFED has never studied how water projects affect the Delta's ecosystem.

"Frankly, if CALFED can't establish itself as a level playing field with a goal of protecting the fish, it does not need to exist," Jennings said.

Coolidge is confident that CALFED will be funded in some form by the state. Once it goes through the Senate Budget Subcommittee on Water, it must meet the approval of the full Senate, Assembly and Governor's Office.

"There is a long process here," he said.

Contact reporter Ross Farrow at rossf@lodinews.com.

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