Image: Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta
State of California
The Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, which borders urban areas, is at the center of a new state water plan.
updated 11/4/2009 4:46:58 PM ET 2009-11-04T21:46:58

California lawmakers on Wednesday passed an $11.1 billion overhaul of the state's antiquated water system in a bid to supply a soaring population while preserving a fragile environment.

After a long night of debate, the state Assembly voted in favor of the comprehensive package of water bills and a bond measure to fund them. The Senate also approved.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger called the five-bill package a wise investment in the state's future. "This is without any doubt the most comprehensive water infrastructure package that has passed here," Schwarzenegger said.

The plan provides funding for new dams, groundwater cleanup, conservation and habitat restoration. It gives Schwarzenegger comprehensive tools to begin restoring the crucial Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and create a stable water supply for cities in Southern California and farmers in the Central Valley.

Lawmakers have wrangled for years over how to upgrade the water system. The problems became more acute this year when farmers faced a third dry year with less snowfall and new pumping restrictions to protect a delta fish.

Democrats and Republicans spent months hashing out a strategy intended to change how water is used in California and how to better manage the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

Slideshow: Drying up The Environmental Defense Fund praised the package. "This is a major breakthrough that sets a new framework for providing both water supply reliability and protecting our fragile ecosystems," said Laura Harnish, the EDF's regional director. "It puts California on course for a smarter water future."

The water plan includes creation of a seven-member governing council to oversee the delta that funnels fresh water from Northern to Southern California, where most of the state's population lives. The maze of earthen levees is susceptible to earthquakes that could halt pumping for months.

Federal courts and agencies have ordered reductions in pumping to protect he delta's collapsing ecosystem.

Legislators want to require California cities to use 20 percent less water by 2020, although large urban areas such as Los Angeles and San Francisco would not have to meet such a high threshold because per-capita water use is lower than other parts of the state.

At the center of the new water package is the bond that has grown over the past two days to more than $11 billion. The Senate had passed a $9.9 billion version earlier in the week but the Assembly added more money for water recycling and conservation programs.

The plan also includes a new program to keep track of state groundwater levels.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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