Assembly Minority Leader Connie Conway said additional water storage is Republicans' top priority. The GOP will be comfortable with the $11.1 billion water bond currently on the November ballot rather than agreeing to a stripped-down, $6 billion replacement version proposed by Gov. Jerry Brown, she said.
The bond lays out funding for a variety of water projects, including cleaning up groundwater contamination, recycling programs and restoring watershed ecosystems. The governor's version reduces funding for new and expanded reservoirs by $1 billion.
"Storage is integral," said Conway, R-Tulare, standing in the backyard of a rancher's home that would be voluntarily demolished for the reservoir. "You can talk about restoration of the delta, you can talk about recycling, you can talk about all the things you want to do. That takes water."
Rancher Mary Wells led four lawmakers and legislative staff on a tour through the parched valley where the Sites Reservoir has been considered for decades. The reservoir would draw Sacramento River water through canals instead of disrupting the river flow outright, which backers say allays typical concerns about disturbing wildlife.
Storage supporters have also prized a new dam on the San Joaquin River above Fresno, known as the Temperance Flats project.
The Democratic governor has said he wants to minimize any new state bond debt, while lawmakers of both parties say his plan doesn't do enough to address the state's pressing water needs.
Brown plans to talk with lawmakers throughout the week about a revamped water bond, the governor's spokesman, Evan Westrup, told reporters Wednesday.
Time is running out. The Legislature and governor have only two or three weeks to replace the current water bond on the November ballot, which was negotiated by a different set of lawmakers in 2009 under then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
The negotiations are complicated by the fact that it will take two-thirds votes in the Assembly and Senate and Brown's signature to replace the bond currently on the fall ballot, listed as Proposition 43.
The bond has been delayed from going to a vote several times because lawmakers were worried voters wouldn't swallow its $11 billion price tag. It also has been criticized because it is filled with special-interest projects, some of which have little if anything to do with solving the state's water problems.
Despite those concerns, lawmakers on Wednesday's trip to the Colusa County reservoir site praised the existing bond measure as a product of bipartisan compromise and said the effects of California's drought may be enough to persuade voters to pass it.
"I just don't think the sky is necessarily falling" if a deal isn't reached for a new bond, said Assemblyman Ken Cooley, a Democrat whose suburban Sacramento district includes large expanses of agricultural land.
Conway agreed that voters might be likely to finally support the original version: "They are tired of their dead lawns," she said.
But supporters of an overhaul say polling doesn't back their arguments. A Public Policy Institute of California poll released last month shows Proposition 43 with support of 51 percent of likely voters, with a sampling margin error of plus or minus 3.7 percent.
Brown has since blasted the bond as "beyond what's reasonable or affordable," the first public denouncement of the measure from the state's top elected official.
Associated Press writer Juliet Williams in Sacramento contributed to this report.