Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's call to delay a vote on the massive water bond the Legislature approved last year is a tacit admission of what he should have known all along: The political decision last fall to add $2 billion in pork made the $11.1 billion bond all but impossible to pass, even in good times.

Assuming the governor can get the Legislature to go along with a two-year delay, the strategy raises two questions:

What makes the governor think the political climate will be any better in 2012? (Other than the fact that he'll be out of office and can deny responsibility for a failure.)

And assuming he can muster two-thirds of lawmakers to delay the vote, why not just get them to take out the pork and offer up a smarter, more basic plan that Californians might actually approve sooner? They know our water supply is fragile. They'll support a plan that sticks to essentials.

A Public Policy Institute of California survey showed that voter support for the water bond had slipped 5 points over six months, falling to 42 percent in May. It's easy to see why. California has a $19 billion deficit and double-digit unemployment. Yet the governor and Legislature wanted voters to rubber-stamp a deal that includes:

 

  • $1.05 billion in earmarks for unidentified "water supply reliability" projects scattered throughout the state.

     

     

  • $100 million for watershed restoration in the Lake Tahoe area, which claims some of the purest water in the state.

     

     

  • $270 million to restore salmon runs on the Klamath River by removing a dam, including $20 million to lighten the impact on Siskiyou County.

     

     

  • $75 million for the Sierra Nevada Conservancy to improve community sustainability.

     

    Some of these projects, maybe all, are good ideas. But they are not core to ensuring an adequate water supply for the state, which must be the goal.

    Meanwhile, agriculture, one of the primary beneficiaries of the deal, would not be required to take any conservation steps, even though it uses 80 percent of the state's water. Ag is critical to California's economy, but anybody who sees irrigation spraying into sunlight on 100-degree days in the Central Valley knows there are savings to be had.

    The annual bill for servicing an $11 billion bond would be $700 million. Every dollar needs to be essential.

    The governor knows there is a downside to delaying a vote until 2012. The health of the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta is in grave danger. A flood or earthquake could destroy a system of more than 1,000 miles of delta levees that protect farmland and thousands of lives, not to mention half of Santa Clara County's water supply. If the levees fail, the damage would cost $40 billion and take well over a year to repair.

    The state has some money to begin work on the delta now. Being more honest about that could help get the bond numbers down, but there's no question more money is needed.

    Schwarzenegger still can make protecting California's water supply his greatest legacy. But to do it, he needs to take the pork out of the legislation so that voters will pass it sooner rather than later.