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The Course of California Water Flows Dual and Duplicating Ways

April 14, 1985|BILL STALL | Bill Stall is a Times editorial writer.

It is an audacious idea, but audacity always has been an important element in water development in California.

The idea is for the state of California to take over operation of the federal government's Central Valley Project and merge its management with the California Water Project. As a combined entity, this waterworks system would encompass some $8-billion worth of physical facilities stretching nearly the length of California.

Through it would run the irrigation water that supplies more than a fourth of the state's area, including some of the nation's richest farm land, and the municipal and industrial water serving two-thirds of the state's population.

The giant system would flow from the headwaters of the Sacramento River near the Oregon border almost to Mexico. An integrated circuit of more than 1,000 miles of aqueducts and canals would link scores of dams and reservoirs into the world's most sophisticated water development and delivery system.

But the merger, if it is to happen, would be an achievement of politics, not physical waterworks. The dams and pumps and aqueducts already exist, constructed by California and U.S. taxpayers over the last two generations. In some places, most notably the delta of the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers, state and federal waters mix without distinction. Physically, each drop is identical to the next.

Politically, however, each drop is separate and distinct, as if it wore a little tag labeled state or federal. So the proposed merger would be a matter of negotiating and compromise and, finally, approval by the Legislature, the governor, Congress and the President. The earth moving and engineering may have been the easy part. But the concept of joint operations has advantages worth exploring.

Exploring is the object of Assembly Bill 2010, introduced in the California Legislature by Assemblyman Phillip Isenberg (D--Sacramento). Isenberg's measure directs the state resources secretary to create a task force of interested agencies and environmental organizations to study merger and report back to the Legislature in December, 1986.

Why bother? Each system seems to function fairly well and, where necessary, there has been a measure of coordination between the two project operators: the state Department of Water Resources and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, an agency of the U.S. Department of Interior.

The basic answer offered by Isenberg: "It doesn't make sense to have two water systems do the same thing in the same state, but under different management. It wastes water and it wastes money."

A merger, or even acquisition of the CVP by the state, is not a new idea. The Central Valley Project originally was conceived as a state venture. But it was taken over by the federal government in the Depression when the state could not market the construction bonds.

The idea resurfaced periodically, but always stagnated in politics. One of Isenberg's major arguments for a merger is that operation of the two systems as one would alleviate pressures created by both projects pumping water out of the delta into their own southbound canals. Because of jurisdictional, legal and institutional differences, the state and federal projects use different and sometimes conflicting criteria for pumping.

Major clashes have occurred over how much fresh water, and whose, must be allowed to flow out to the San Francisco Bay for maintaining water quality in the delta against the intrusion of salty ocean water. The Bureau of Reclamation has been reluctant to comply with the state water-quality rules, particularly if compliance would in any way jeopardize its ability to sell a maximum amount of water to farmers for crop irrigation in the San Joaquin Valley.

State and federal officials have negotiated for more than a decade on an agreement to control such pumping; some observers hope negotiations can be successfully concluded this year. This can be done without a merger, but state control of the entire system would eliminate future jurisdictional conflict.

Other conflicts and tensions could be eliminated by a single master running this giant side-by-side water network with one set of operating rules.

Isenberg cites the recent controversy over the federal government's Kesterson Reservoir and wildlife refuge as an advantage of project integration. Scientists have discovered that the irrigation water, seeping through the ground, filtered through natural deposits of the mineral selenium. The resulting selenium buildup has been blamed for death and deformity among waterfowl nesting at Kesterson.

After denying the need for any urgent action, the Bureau of Reclamation was ordered by the state Water Resources Control Board to adopt an accelerated cleanup of Kesterson or close it down--a classic example of state-federal conflict.

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