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Wieder's Water Committee Looks for Wellspring of Public Support

April 07, 1986|JEFFREY A. PERLMAN | Times Urban Affairs Writer

In California, whiskey's for drinking and water's for fighting about!

--Mark Twain

As she made final preparations to be host to a Sacramento dinner reception for state legislators last month, Orange County Supervisor Harriett M. Wieder learned that few of the lawmakers would stay past the cocktail hour because of other political events around town.

One by one, elected officials attending the hotel reception for the Southern California Water Committee peeled off until only a handful remained.

"I thought we had cleared the calendar for our event," Wieder said. "Perhaps we were too naive."

During dinner, Wieder screened a 14-minute, $50,000 film about California water issues. Some of the water district, county and corporate officials viewing the documentary had helped pay for it. But they did not realize that the fast-paced video would have only limited public distribution because narrator-newsman Boyd Matson has an exclusive contract with NBC, thus precluding use on other networks.

It was a somewhat rocky Sacramento debut for the water committee, but Wieder made the best of it.

She joked with dinner guests that nearby farms were inundated from recent rains and thus "they're probably dying to give us all the water we want, right now."

Surveying the crowd, she added: "You're the glue that holds us together."

In just two years, the nonprofit organization chaired by Wieder has drawn praise from Gov. George Deukmejian, the state water resources director, Sacramento lobbyists and other officials for its efforts to educate the public about Southern California's water needs.

Created by Wieder with the help of the Irvine Co., the group has grown to include members from eight Southern California counties, including boards of supervisors and city councils. The group has a paid staff and an Irvine office, and it recently adopted a $391,000 budget.

In recent months the organization has begun seeking financial support from private industry, and it is also selling annual memberships to individuals, water districts and local governments.

Yet, it has not all been smooth sailing. The nonprofit committee's legal inability to support or oppose proposed water projects has angered some politicians and has prompted some paying members to wonder what they're getting for their money.

Additionally, some environmentalists and Northern California officials fear that the committee's hidden purpose is to resurrect the Peripheral Canal, a proposed water project that was overwhelmingly defeated by California voters in 1982. The canal would have diverted some Northern California water around the Sacramento River Delta to Southern California.

As a result, Contra Costa County Supervisor Sunne Wright McPeak, a longtime Wieder political rival in the statewide county supervisors' association, has formed a Northern California committee to counter Wieder's group.

Wieder, however, has been conciliatory and has announced plans to meet with McPeak's group later this year. "What we need is a stable source of supply (water) for every part of the state," she told her Sacramento dinner audience.

Still, some observers question Wieder's credibility as a spokeswoman on water issues.

Last October, she held a press conference in Los Angeles to attack Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley's state water proposals for stressing conservation rather than increased supplies. Many observers viewed Wieder's action as a political faux pas resulting from her partisan Republican background.

Deukmejian Appointments

Formerly a Los Angeles resident, Wieder was an aide to Los Angeles Mayor Sam Yorty, whom Bradley defeated in 1973. More important, Wieder is on Gov. George Deukmejian's reelection committee and is a Deukmejian appointee to several state advisory boards and commissions. Bradley, a Democrat, is seeking to unseat Deukmejian this year.

Thus, while all eight Southern California counties and nearly two dozen cities have each paid $10,000 and $750, respectively, to join Wieder's group--as have most water agencies, including the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power--the City of Los Angeles has not.

Lou Smallwood, the committee's executive director, said that the organization "got off on the wrong foot" with Los Angeles but that she now believes Los Angeles will join the group.

"We recently spent 45 minutes talking to Mayor Bradley, to tell him what we're all about, and he listened well, I feel," she said.

However, when asked if Los Angeles may become a water committee member, Tom Houston, Bradley's chief of staff, asked in turn, "When does Wieder's chairmanship expire?"

Houston added that Bradley applauds the committee's educational efforts, but believes that it may be too interested "in another big ditch (canal project). . . . The (Los Angeles) City Council is still studying it, so we'll see what happens," he said.

Forgot Ayala

Wieder and her committee have also been criticized for ignoring key legislators.

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