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Crucial Search

March 12, 1986

Once in a while a California governor has an opportunity to make the sort of appointment that can have a transcendent effect on the course of the state for years to come. Gov. George Deukmejian has such an opportunity now in the selection of a new chairman of the state Water Resources Control Board.

Raymond V. Stone of San Diego is resigning as chairman after failing to win state Senate confirmation. The governor should now find an activist chairman who can lift water policy out of the wreckage of Peripheral Canal wars and into a future free of old north-south water blood-letting.

With the proper leader, the state Water Resources Control Board can set the stage for a 21st-Century California that has ample supplies of water to sustain its farms, support urban growth and nurture the natural environment.

The board not only is the arbiter of all water rights in California, it also regulates the discharge of pollution. The board has demonstrated, in San Joaquin and Imperial valley cases, its ability to affect water policy indirectly--but decisively--through its pollution-control function.

California is in a period of reassessment in the wake of failed efforts to expand the state Water Project toward its original mandate of taking more water from Northern California to fuel the growth of the south. The south needs more than sheer political power to wring additional water from the north. It must have a stronger moral case. That case is slowly evolving--with increased emphasis on water conservation, alternative sources of supply and storage within the south, and a greater sensitivity to Northern California interests.

Normally, major water policy stems from the governor's office and is executed by his Department of Water Resources, but political circumstances make it difficult for aggressive initiatives to come from this quarter right now. Nor is the Legislature the best forum for forging consensus, because of political and regional Balkanism.

The mood for consensus is rife in California these days--at least in general terms. Everyone seems to agree, for instance, that the emerging concept of water marketing can play an important role in allocating resources. But the last word always seems to resemble the grumbling of one delegate as he walked away from a water-marketing conference in Santa Monica recently: "This is all fine, but what happens to my entitlement?"

But somewhere in California there is a person who might be able to bring the factions together; someone who is not inextricably tied to one of the old-boy water networks; someone who is not viewed as pro-agriculture or pro-environment or pro-urban; someone who can demonstrate that a little accommodation by all can benefit the entire state; someone who can negotiate, facilitate and cajole; someone who recognizes that conditions are changing faster than the state's water institutions can cope with them.

If there is no such choice at hand, the governor must send out search parties. Finding the right nominee is important to Deukmejian; it is crucial to the state.

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