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The Politics of Water 

Chesbro's 'no' vote underscores changes coming in January

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It was one of those few feel-good moments of unity in Sacramento. After months of wrangling, and with a deadline looming, the Legislature had just combined to vote 114-2 in favor of putting a $7.5 billion water bond before voters in November. Within hours of the Aug. 13 votes, Gov. Jerry Brown was signing the bill.

"We've got a real water bond, and we've got Democrats and Republicans that are more unified than I've ever seen, probably, in my life," Brown told the Sacramento Bee. "It was an amazing convergence over a big idea, and the big idea is that the future of California needs a lot of water and we've got to use it in the best way possible."

Two assemblymen weren't celebrating that night — Wesley Chesbro (D-Arcata) and Tim Donnelly (R-Twin Peaks) — became odd bedfellows in casting the lone dissenting votes against a landmark bill. But each did so for drastically different reasons. And, in some ways, Chesbro's vote can be seen as the end of an era, potentially the last principled, Humboldt-centric vote a North Coast state legislator will make at the expense of more populous parts of the district for the foreseeable future.

Motivated in a large part by the state's years-long drought, the bond, if passed, will cast a broad net, with $1.5 billion going to projects to protect and restore rivers, lakes and other watersheds; $900 million for drought preparedness; $725 million for water recycling; $520 million to cleanse drinking water supplies in small communities; and $395 million for flood management. But the single largest expenditure will come in the form of $2.7 billion allocated for the construction of dams, reservoirs and other water storage facilities, paving the way for California's first new state-funded dams and reservoirs in more than three decades.

It's that last part that was a sticking point for both Chesbro and Donnelly. The uber-conservative Donnelly felt the $2.7 billion in water storage funding wasn't nearly enough. Chesbro essentially felt the opposite.

"The water bond passed by the Legislature and signed by the governor [Aug. 13] has many attractive elements, but at the end of the day this bond measure is bad news for the North Coast," Chesbro said in a statement issued the day after the vote. "It includes $2.7 billion for water storage projects — dams and reservoirs — increasing pressure for diversion of more Northern California river water."

Chesbro, who lives in Arcata when he's not in the capital, was keenly aware of the controversy swirling around Humboldt County as the bond issue came to a head in Sacramento. He knew that, seeing historically low river flows, biologists were urging the federal Bureau of Reclamation to release waters into the Trinity River to increase flows and reduce temperatures in it and the Klamath River to avoid conditions similar to 2002, when tens of thousands of salmon died of gill rot disease in the Klamath. Chesbro also likely knew that biologists were reporting finding blue-green algae blooms in both rivers.

"The Trinity River — and ultimately the Klamath — is at greatest risk," Chesbro continued in his statement, "because of existing plumbing that already diverts water from the Trinity to the Sacramento River. Increasing reservoir capacity will lead to greater demand for water from the Trinity at a time when severe and prolonged drought has significantly reduced existing snow packs."

Chesbro said he tried to secure protections for Trinity River flows, first through legislation and then through the bond bill, but was unable to get support. Without those protections in place, Chesbro said he couldn't vote for the bill — which has been largely hailed throughout the state (and especially in its southern reaches) as a bi-partisan compromise to address immediate needs.

It seems clear Chesbro took a very localized view on the issue, said Ryan Emenaker, a professor of political science at College of the Redwoods, describing it as a "home-district" type vote. In contrast, however, Second District State Sen. Noreen Evans voted for the measure. Evans hasn't made any public statements on the issue, so it's unclear exactly what motivated her vote, but it was likely the prospect of her district getting some $26.5 million in funding for water quality projects or that she felt the bond was in the best interest of the state as a whole. It's worth noting that while Sonoma and Marin counties currently don't receive any water diverted from the Trinity River, water is diverted from the Eel River into the Russian River, which flows through Sonoma County and is used to irrigate vineyards. Exactly what Evans knows about the battle playing out over water in the Trinity and Klamath rivers and how she sees that impacted by the bond is unclear.

The North Coast will have two new legislators come November and, for the first time in recent memory, neither of them will be from Humboldt County. Chesbro is being pushed from office by term limits, and Evans opted not to seek re-election. A run-off in November will decide which of the four men from the southern parts of the Senate and Assembly districts will take their places in January. When the pair is sworn into office, it will mark the first time in the better part of two decades that a Humboldt County resident won't be in the Legislature.

Emenaker said elected officials can do a lot to get to know the far reaches of their districts, including hiring knowledgeable staff, spending time in the district and listening to constituents and local elected officials. But, Emenaker said, you don't know any place quite the way you know home. "I think a lot of times people have great intentions and want to represent everywhere in their district, but it's hard to understand a place's needs if you're not from there," he said. "And, there are times when interests compete, when a water bond might be really beneficial to the southern part of your district but detrimental to the northern part. You might have to make a decision that puts one part of your district's interests over another."

And it's hard to imagine Humboldt County coming out in the positive end of that equation if pitted against the interests of these new representatives' home cities, which — in addition to just being home — are the population centers of the district. Patty Berg, who served Humboldt as its state assemblywoman from 2002 through 2008, said votes in the district are concentrated in Sonoma County, followed by Marin County. Humboldt County comes in third, she said, which helps explain why all the candidates still standing are from the southern part of the district. Berg said she feels the district will be in good hands, noting that she's already spoken to a couple of candidates about staffing options for their Humboldt offices.

Humboldt County is simply entering into a new era of state politics, Emenaker said, noting that the impacts extend far beyond access and knowledge base. For example, Emenaker said, a politician from Santa Rosa is probably going to have different committee interests than one from Humboldt, leaving the local area with less of a voice on specific issues of interest that get hashed out in closed-door committee meetings. The county will also have two freshmen representatives with no experience in the Legislature, Emenaker noted, something Humboldt hasn't seen in a long time.

The bottom line, Emenaker said, is that local governments and citizens are going to have to work harder and make more noise to get their voices heard in Sacramento come January. Oh, and they shouldn't expect too many more votes like Chesbro's in coming years.

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