YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

State's Old Water Wars May Subside : 'Anaheim Spirit' Calms Turbulence

May 19, 1985|Bill Stall | Bill Stall is a Times editorial writer.

In the old days, and even not so long ago, the irrigator protected his water rights with a shovel and a gun. The shovel kept the ditches open and water flowing to the land. The gun was in case someone came along with a bigger shovel.

Trust was a word on a U.S. coin or in a bank title. It had nothing to do with water.

Times, and attitudes, change. The words "trust" and "faith" gushed forth so freely at a recent Anaheim gathering of California water interests that even the participants seemed a little bewildered. South trust north? Farmer trust city dweller? Environmentalist and water developer? Could this be real--at the Disneyland Hotel?

Rep. Tony Coelho (D-Merced) from the Central Valley, where water and votes share common currency, declared to a Northern California water leader, "We're no longer fighting each other . . . . I'm willing to trust our ability to work together."

Off in a corner, another California water pro shook his head and muttered, "Such a love feast. It's hard to believe."

Indeed, this new mood of cooperation among disparate California water interests is a fragile one. But if it holds, the evangelism of Anaheim can end years of stalemate over water development in California and provide the modest new facilities required to meet water needs into the 21st Century. The key is that the vague words of trust are translated into concrete actions by legislators and water lords in California and Washington.

The specific catalyst for all the optimistic talk was the new agreement between the state Department of Water Resources and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, to coordinate operation of their giant water projects in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. For the first time, the federal bureau was willing, on a formalized basis, to operate its Central Valley Project pumps in a way that would protect delta water quality as well as to pump irrigation water to the farms of the San Joaquin Valley. The deal had the water community abuzz.

Everyone knew for years that pumping from the delta to the valley and Southern California was damaging the estuary, with water quality implications for San Francisco Bay as well. For years, the official state solution to that problem was to build a massive concrete ditch around the delta to bring fresh Sacramento River water directly into the state and federal canals. At the same time, water from the new ditch would be pumped into various sloughs and streams feeding the delta to maintain its fish and wildlife, recreation and agriculture.

But Northern Californians, who never liked exporting their water south, did not trust whomever might have his hands on the pump switches. In a drought, they feared, the delta pumps might just be shut off and all the water sent south. In a demonstration of their feelings, they voted more than 9-1 in the 1982 election to defeat a Peripheral Canal referendum.

Compounding the problem was the fact that the Bureau of Reclamation, and its valley farmer clients, insisted that their Central Valley Project water was not meant to be washed out to sea just to keep the delta fresh. Congress' mandate was to irrigate farms, not placate environmentalists. But at last, the federal officials consented to a Coordinated Operating Agreement permitting their water to be used to help maintain delta water quality standards set by the state. There is a good reason. The delta represented not only a plumbing problem, but a political problem as well. The bureau has as much as 1 million acre-feet of water in Northern California it could sell to its farm customers if it had a way to deliver the water. But the federal canal already runs full during the irrigating season.

The state has spare canal space it could lend to the bureau for transport of water to the valley. And if the bureau was able to use the state canal, it might sell some of its spare water to the state for use on an interim basis, perhaps for 10 or 20 years. This would make up for some of the water development the state wanted, but was killed with the Peripheral Canal.

Northern Californians and environmental groups insisted on delta protections before they would relent to any more export of water to the south, whether it flowed through state or federal canals. The Coordinated Operating Agreement is a significant step toward meeting those demands.

In a sense, all of this cooperation does not just stem from people wanting to be good citizens but from political reality. The north demonstrated in the 1982 vote that it would not give up any more water without conditions and the north currently is winning the conditions.

They include more conservation; water storage south of the delta so more can be pumped during winter with less damage; more realistic pricing of water and financing of projects; and safe disposal of polluted irrigation runoff.

"We did awaken the electorate," said Sunne McPeak, a Contra Costa County supervisor who led the campaign against the Peripheral Canal. Now her organization is working for a solution to statewide water problems without a Peripheral Canal, but perhaps allowing for a limited through-delta water route to the pumps.

"We cannot get to any future water development without the Coordinated Operating Agreement," she said. It must be ratified by Congress, but she added, "I am hopeful. I am truly hopeful."

Jack Keating, executive manager of the California Water Resources Assn., said, "The water community cannot stand any more defeats. It would be folly to advance any big projects at this time. In a couple years, maybe."

It seems now there will be big projects ahead. If so, their foundations may be traced to the trust of Anaheim.

Los Angeles Times Articles