Brown's next big issue after the budget? Water 

Just for grins, let’s assume that Jerry Brown beats the long political odds and persuades the California Legislature and voters to enact his tough-love plan to close the state budget gap.

If Brown can put the budget crisis behind him, at least for a few years, the state’s other long-festering political sore — water — will almost certainly move to the top of his agenda.

Predecessor Arnold Schwarzenegger supposedly settled California’s water wars before leaving office. In fact, he didn’t. He merely put in place a complex mechanism to forge plans for the “coequal goals” of saving the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta from environmental disaster while improving the reliability of shipments of water through or around the Delta to Southern California.

That complex process is under way, but the warring political, economic and cultural factions have not yet been reconciled. They merely have been provided with a new battleground.

Brown must get involved soon because a key piece of the Schwarzenegger water package, an $11.1 billion bond issue, is on the 2012 ballot after being shifted from 2010 because of fears it would be rejected.

Brown pointedly did not endorse the bond issue during his campaign and criticized using general obligation bonds, which are repaid by taxpayers, for water projects rather than making water users shoulder the financial burden.

Brown, however, did endorse an “alternative conveyance” for water around, through or under the Delta. It’s a new version of the “peripheral canal” for which Brown won legislative approval 32 years ago, only to see it rejected by voters due to odd-bedfellows opposition from environmental groups and farmers.

He’s assembled a new water team, headed by Jerry Meral, who worked on Brown’s peripheral canal three decades ago and then became an environmental activist. Meral’s job: use his ties to enviros to overcome their historic opposition to a water bypass.

The Delta Stewardship Council, an agency created by Schwarzenegger and the Legislature in 2009 and chaired by former Sacramento Assemblyman Phil Isenberg, underscored the immediacy of Brown’s role in water Monday. It unveiled an initial — and partial — draft of a Delta management plan that may eventually include a peripheral canal or some other conveyance that bypasses the Delta. Budgets and water have been the bêtes noires of all recent governors. Brown believes he can break the pattern of failure on both. We’ll see.

Dan Walters’ Sacramento Bee columns on state politics are syndicated by the Scripps Howard News Service.

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