SACRAMENTO, CALIF. — After years of contentious debate between business, agricultural, water supplier, and environmental interests, the California Legislature finally passed what is being called “historic” water legislation. Governor Schwarzenegger, who pushed hard for the package of bills, signed the reforms into law.

“We are now stuck with a water infrastructure that’s for 18 million people, but in the meantime we are 38 million people and very soon we’re going to be 50 million people, by the time all of this infrastructure is built,” Schwarzenegger said. “So people have fought and fought and fought — Democrats against Republicans, businesses against labor, farmers against environmentalists, rural against urban, the north versus the south. And this is how it went on and on, and for decades these divisions have blocked California from investing in its water infrastructure.

According to the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), the legislation includes the following provisions:

• implements the governor’s call to improve water use efficiency by 20 percent by 2020;
• reduces reliance on the San Francisco Bay/Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta by increasing the use of cost-effective projects to increase regional water supplies, including water recycling, efficiency, and low-impact development;
• establishes performance standards and new public trust flows critical to achieving a healthy and resilient ecosystem;
• establishes a comprehensive statewide groundwater monitoring program;
• requires Delta agencies to respond to climate change and the threats it presents to Delta communities;
• restores the Delta ecosystem, meeting the highest standards for species recovery, while addressing water supply and water quality problems;
• reforms governance of the agencies that manage the Delta;
• ensures that construction of any new conveyance facilities cannot begin until after the State Water Resources Control Board has issued a permit that includes binding protections for California’s beleaguered fisheries; and
• ensures that any new conveyance facilities are financed by water users, rather than taxpayers.

In addition, the legislation includes an $11 billion bond that voters must approve in November 2010. According to the Los Angeles Times, the bond, which leverage $30 billion in federal funds, sets aside $3 billion for new storage and $2 billion for ecosystem restoration in the Delta, funds recycling and groundwater cleanup, and pays for Salton Sea restoration and watershed projects on the Los Angeles and San Gabriel Rivers, among other projects.

The NRDC and the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), as well as water suppliers, supported the legislation.

“The Legislature has enacted the most historic legislative package on water since the authorization of the State Water Project in 1960,” said Timothy Quinn, executive director of the Association of California Water Agencies (ACWA). “The package lays out a workable governance structure for the Delta and a clear path for completing the important work of the Bay-Delta Conservation Plan, which offers an historic opportunity to improve both ecosystem health and water supply reliability, while at the same time protecting local Delta communities and economies. At its core, this moves California from the extraction policies of the past to the sustainability policies of the future to protect the environment and the economy.”

“The water package increases environmental protections in the Bay-Delta estuary, improves statewide water use efficiency, and requires California to begin monitoring groundwater — all key to ensure Californians are able to meet future water needs,” said Barry Nelson, senior policy analyst with NRDC. “This is the most important state water reform legislation in a quarter-century.

“These landmark bills lay the framework for a 21st Century water policy in California by establishing a state policy of reducing reliance on the Delta and investing in alternative water supply solutions, including water recycling, groundwater banking, conservation, and low impact development,” Nelson said. “This bill shows remarkable agreement that these tools, rather than pumping more water from the Delta, are the cornerstone strategies for ensuring adequate water for all Californians.”

The EDF said that it worked for more than a year to establish the following key environmental safeguards in the legislation:

• help ensure that sufficient water flows for fish and other wildlife are left in the ecosystem;
• reduce reliance on exports of fresh water from the Delta;
• require much greater water conservation; and
• develop good science on the state of California’s underground water reserves.

“Disputes over water supply and environmental protections have been at the forefront of vigorous and sometimes emotional debate in California,” EDF said in a statement. “Drought, economic hardship in farming communities, extended salmon fishery closures, and signs of imminent ecological collapse all combined to help convince the California Legislature that it had to act to protect water supply for future generations.”